How Earth Volcanoes Offer a Window into the Evolution of Life and the Solar System

Volcanoes aren’t just on volcanic islands. From the ocean floor to the icy poles of the Earth, volcanoes are an important force of nature.

While active volcanoes are incredibly destructive, they’re essential to life on Earth. Volcanoes actually made life on Earth possible in the first place.

But Earth isn’t the only celestial body in our solar system with volcanoes. Other planets and their moons also have volcanoes, both active and inactive.

We can learn so much about the formation of the solar system by studying volcanoes. And that’s precisely why scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are studying the Earth’s volcanoes.

Image result for hawaiian volcano eruption gif

Volcanoes: A force of creation
Volcanoes show how celestial bodies transformed from a collection of elements and minerals and into complex, physical bodies.

Earth science helps us study and understand volcanoes that exist elsewhere in the solar system, and what role they play in the formation of life.

In fact, we can thank volcanoes for life on Earth. The Earth’s land mass was built over billions of years by underground molten rock. Over time, this released gases into the atmosphere. In turn, this created Earth’s oceans, which allowed the first life forms to flourish.

Put simply, volcanoes keep the Earth warm and wet, which are two critical elements for sustaining life.

Scientists wanted to know how volcanoes played a role in planetary formation elsewhere in the solar system, and how they could have the potential for underground life.

Volcanoes of the solar system
NASA scientists are currently studying the composition, geometry, and lava of Earth’s volcanoes. When we better understand our own planet, we can understand the complexities of the solar system as a whole.

Why? Because volcanoes are everywhere in our solar system.

Jupiter’s moons are actually the most promising extraterrestrial volcanoes for study.

Jupiter’s moon Io contains hundreds of active volcanoes. Europa has hints of volcanic activity below its icy exterior, which covers an immense liquid water ocean.

NASA scientists plan to send the Europa Clipper spacecraft to study Europa’s surface in the future. This will help us determine if the planet has the necessary forces to sustain life.

However, scientists are years away from sending a craft to study Europa. First, they need to practice and test their equipment.

And when it comes to testing equipment, there’s no place like home.

Studying Earth’s volcanoes
Scientists eventually want to send a lander to Europa that will search for chemical biosignatures on the moon’s surface. This will help us understand if the moon is able to sustain life in its vast ocean.

To test their process and equipment, scientists are exploring the frozen, volcanic regions of Earth. Namely, Iceland. This is the region on Earth that most closely resembles Europa’s icy, volcanic environment.

Scientists are studying the Vatnajökull area in Iceland to see how geothermal heat from volcanic activity interacts with the ice.

They’re also studying the ice with Raman spectroscopy. This device measures how light passes through ice, determining the ice composition, as well as the composition of the water beneath it.

Scientists have already found promising data: lichen are living inside the ice and even growing on hardened lava.

Looking forward
We have so much to learn about the Earth. Through studying our own volcanoes, we can gain better insight into the history of other celestial bodies.

Thanks to Earth science data and information gleaned from landers like InSight, we can understand the evolution of planets. Looking forward, we may even come to find we aren’t so alone in the solar system.