A Retrospective: Active Volatile-Driven Geologic Processes Across the Solar System—Lessons for Planetary Explorers

Monday, 15 December 2014: 5:15 PM
Laurence A Soderblom, U S Geological Survey, Flagstaff, AZ, United States; USGS Astrogeology Science Center, Flagstaff, AZ, United States
When Voyagers 1 and 2 left Earth in 1977, we had little clue as to the rich variety of activity we’d find on the outer Solar System moons. The moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune would likely exhibit little geologic evolution¾much less even than our Moon. We expected battered, cratered, dead worlds. Like the Moon, Mars had showed volcanic activity in the geologic past, but ancient, heavily crater highlands dominated both surfaces. It seemed unlikely that we’d find even extinct volcanism in the cold, dead reaches of the outer Solar System. Voyager 1 shocked us by revealing Io’s prolific ongoing volcanism. (Not all were surprised: just days earlier, Peale, Cassen, and Reynolds published a prediction that Io could be volcanically active). Europa, too, was a Voyager surprise; only a small handful of impact craters pocked its surface. It too had to be a geologically young body—likely still actively evolving. We have even found very recent geological activity on tiny cometary nuclei, where young flows have oozed forth across their surfaces. At Neptune, incredibly, Voyager 2 found eruptions on Triton’s 37K polar cap—plumes driven by solar-heated nitrogen gas blasting dark dust and bright ice in 8-km-high columns. On Mars, “dark spiders” near the pole signaled similar active eruptions, in this case driven by pressurized carbon dioxide. Cassini witnessed a myriad of jets near tiny Enceladus’ south pole, arising from an internal ocean evidently driven by active chemical processes and modulated by Saturn’s proximity. Cassini revealed Titan to be Earth’s alien twin, with a host of processes borrowed from textbooks on terrestrial geomorphology and meteorology. Akin to Earth’s global hydrological cycle, Titan’s runs on methane—methane rivers, seas, and rain abound.

What lessons can we take from these active places into the next phase of exploration? When the Voyagers were launched, our naiveté allowed that only planet Earth was dynamically active. But exploring our cosmic backyard has awed us with unforeseen complexity, scientific beauty, and rich activity. We are now far better armed in our nascent exploration of the worlds beyond that backyard.