How Earth volcanoes offer a window into the evolution of life and the solar system | 11/14/2018 | Staff
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Violent and destructive, active volcanoes ought to be feared and avoided. Yet, these geological cauldrons expose the pulse of many planets and moons, offering clues to how these bodies evolved from chemical soups to the complex systems of gases and rocks we see today.

Unearthing these clues is what motivates planetary scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to venture to inhospitable places on this planet that most people try to avoid: smoldering lava fields and glacier-covered volcanoes.

Science - Volcanoes - Planet - Knowledge - Moon

"You can use Earth science to study volcanoes on this planet and then apply that knowledge to the Moon, Mars and other bodies," said Patrick L. Whelley, a Goddard planetary geologist. "Plus, we don't have the luxury of watching volcanic eruptions up close anywhere besides Earth."

What's clear about volcanoes on this planet is that Earth would have been desolate without them. By belching molten rock onto its surface from deep inside, these underground furnaces helped build Earth's continents. Moreover, they released gases that helped form our oceans and our atmosphere billions of years ago—two features that enabled life to thrive here. To this day, volcanoes help keep Earth warm, wet and habitable.

Volcanoes - Role - Bodies

Could volcanoes have played a similar role on other celestial bodies? Do they still?

These are some of the questions Whelley and his colleagues are trying to answer by studying the composition and geometry of Earth's volcanoes and the lava they spew. The better we understand Earth, they reason, the sharper the rest of the solar system will come into focus.

Evidence - Volcanoes - System - Patches - Moon

Evidence abounds that volcanoes dot the solar system. The dark patches on the Moon, where volcanoes are inactive, are made of lava that hardened billions of years ago. Mars boasts the solar system's largest (though, now, likely inactive) volcanoes. Mercury hosts remnants of volcanoes that lost steam billions of years ago;...
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