Jimmy Westlake: Fires of Kilauea | SteamboatToday.com

Jimmy Westlake: Fires of Kilauea

Jimmy Westlake

This week, I am on the Big Island of Hawaii with 19 members of the SKY Club (the student astronomy club at Colorado Mountain College.)

Last night, as the sun went down behind Mauna Loa, we were perched on the edge of the Kilauea Iki volcanic crater, watching the smoke and steam billow out of the main Kilauea crater, miles away.

As darkness slowly crept across the island, stars began to pop out, one by one. The familiar stars of Orion, the Hunter, were in an unfamiliar orientation here in the Tropics, and an unusual bright star shone below Sirius. It was Canopus, a star that never rises above Colorado's mountains.

But, the main attraction for the evening was watching Kilauea's cloud of volcanic mist transform from a fluffy, white plume into a fiery, red flame as twilight faded into darkness. Kilauea is the most active volcano on Earth, having sustained its current eruption continuously since 1983.

As I stood there transfixed on this alien landscape, I wondered if such a display of nature's forces could be witnessed elsewhere in our solar system.

Earth's sibling terrestrial worlds, Mercury, Venus and Mars, all show evidence of volcanic eruptions in the distant past, but none of them have revealed any signs of present-day activity. Even our moon was once a seething cauldron of hot lava, but no more. Of the inner planets, only Earth maintains active volcanism.

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In the outer solar system, volcanoes as we know them could not exist on the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn or the ice giants Uranus and Neptune, but, oddly enough, a few of the moons of these giant planets are known to be geologically active.

Saturn's little moon Enceladus spews fountains of briny water into space, where they instantly freeze into plumes of ice crystals. Beautiful and unexpected to be sure, the icy volcanism on Enceladus is of a completely different nature than the volcanoes on Earth.

Of the worlds in the outer solar system, only Jupiter's moon Io has the internal heat to melt its rocky interior and drive explosive eruptions of fiery volcanoes on its surface. First revealed by the twin Voyage spacecraft of the late 1970s, Io's volcanoes spew molten lava and sulfur high into the Ionian sky and completely repave its surface every few hundred thousand years. Io's volcanoes come the closest to matching those of our home planet.

However, there is nowhere else in our solar system, perhaps in the entire universe, where one can stand in a lush tropical rainforest, beneath the starry sky and witness the awesome and breathtaking beauty of a volcano at night.

How fortunate we are.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in Steamboat Today. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.