What is a Cryovolcano?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Cryovolcanos cannot be seen by Earth-based telescopes or observatories because they are too small.
Cryovolcanos cannot be seen by Earth-based telescopes or observatories because they are too small.

A cryovolcano is an icy volcano found on icy bodies, especially moons, in the outer solar system. Cryovolcanoes have been observed directly on Neptune's moon Triton, during a Voyager II fly-by in 1989, and on Saturn's moon Enceladus, by the Cassini probe on 27 November 2005. Indirect evidence of cryovolcanism has been found on several other moons and bodies, including Europa, Titan, Ganymede, Miranda, and the trans-Neptunian object Quaoar.

Indirect evidence of cryovolcanism has been found on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Indirect evidence of cryovolcanism has been found on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Instead of erupting molten rock, as in a conventional volcano, cryovolcanoes erupt volatiles (low boiling point elements or compounds), like water, ammonia, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or methane, accompanied by gas-driven solid fragments. This is called cryomagma. A cryovolcano produces plumes that may be a hundred or more degrees hotter than the frozen surface matter. Exposed to the cold and vacuum of space, the plumes quickly solidify, becoming airborne dust. As the gravity is weak on many ice moons, the plume may completely escape the moon's gravity well, go into an orbit, or crash back down on the surface in another area.

Cryovolcanoes have been observed on Neptune's moon Triton.
Cryovolcanoes have been observed on Neptune's moon Triton.

The source of energy of a cryovolcano usually comes from tidal friction, heat that builds up in the core of moons as they bend and distort in the gravity field of the massive gas giants they orbit. It is also suspected that some moons may have translucent layers of ice that permit light in to heat material beneath it, but have an insulating property that seals in heat and creates a greenhouse effect. This creates pressurized gases in the interior that will escape if there is a route to the surface, thus creating a cryovolcano.

Evidence of a cryovolcano was first uncovered on the south pole of Neptune's moon Triton, in the form of light streaks of nitrogen on the surface covering a dark, older crust. As the surface of some moons may be many hundreds of millions of years old, it can be easy to spot surface deposits that are relatively new, sometimes even just a few hours old. However, this does require direct examination by space probes doing fly-bys. These features are too small and distant to be seen by Earth-based telescopes or observatories.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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    • Cryovolcanos cannot be seen by Earth-based telescopes or observatories because they are too small.
      Cryovolcanos cannot be seen by Earth-based telescopes or observatories because they are too small.
    • Indirect evidence of cryovolcanism has been found on Saturn’s moon Titan.
      Indirect evidence of cryovolcanism has been found on Saturn’s moon Titan.
    • Cryovolcanoes have been observed on Neptune's moon Triton.
      Cryovolcanoes have been observed on Neptune's moon Triton.