April 6, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Bimbo Eruptions in the Solar System

Planetary origin theories come across as popular and charismatic, till some little moon pops off and says, “Yoo-hoo! Remember me?”

Io, Io; It’s Not So Long Ago

Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io is a pain in the astronomical dating game.  Imagine if similar-sized Earth’s moon were carrying on like that; it would be a fireworks show every night, keeping scientists awake wondering how it stays active.  Planetary modelers have had a hard time figuring out Io’s heat source (and how long it could last) since Voyager revealed the eruptions in 1979; and no, tidal flexing is not sufficient.  Now, some NASA and ESA scientists say the volcanoes are “all wrong” – the volcanoes are in the wrong places from where models say they should be.

A press release from NASA Goddard opens with a dramatic image from the New Horizons flyby in 2007, showing a huge plume at Io’s north pole in action.  If the tidal flexing models worked, the expected volcanic action should be 30 to 60 degrees east of where it actually is.  “We found a systematic eastward offset between observed and predicted volcano locations that can’t be reconciled with any existing solid body tidal heating models,” Christopher Hamilton (U of Maryland) said.

Possibilities to explain the offset include a faster than expected rotation for Io, an interior structure that permits magma to travel significant distances from where the most heating occurs to the points where it is able erupt on the surface, or a missing component in existing tidal heating models, like fluid tides from an underground magma ocean, according to the team.

Each of those possibilities seems a stretch, except for the admission something might be missing in their models.  Another possibility is that their starting assumptions are wrong.  None of the discussion dealt with how this heating could persist for 4.5 billion years – a time period so long, Io would have disgorged its entire mass 40 times over by now (CEH 09/27/2002, Science), in addition to losing mass to a torus around Jupiter at the rate of a ton a second–that would amount to 145 quadrillion tons over 4.5 billion years. And if Io has a magma ocean and magnetic field, as the article said scientists are tending to believe, keeping that ocean liquified for billions of years is another serious issue.

The article tried to distract attention from these problems by briefly titillating onlookers with thoughts of life at Europa or Enceladus.  But when pressed, the scientists tried another tack: pride in ignorance:

“The unexpected eastward offset of the volcano locations is a clue that something is missing in our understanding of Io,” says Hamilton. “In a way, that’s our most important result. Our understanding of tidal heat production and its relationship to surface volcanism is incomplete. The interpretation for why we have the offset and other statistical patterns we observed is open, but I think we’ve enabled a lot of new questions, which is good.”

Readers who had faith in scientific “understanding” may be taken aback by this statement.  Here, after over 30 years of knowledge of Io’s volcanism, and centuries of understanding about planetary motion and the behavior of heat, more questions have emerged than answers.  Live Science discussed this “mystery” with its “surprising conclusions” that the “Volcanoes on Jupiter’s Moon Io Are All Wrong.”  Correction: the volcanoes are what they are.  It’s only the scientific interpretation that could possibly be all wrong.  Much of the mystery is resolved instantly if Io is not that old.

Deep trouble at Enceladus

Another embarrassing erupter is Saturn’s little moon Enceladus.  It has one thousandth the mass of Io and is subject to far less tidal friction.  Universe Today leaked something that was revealed at the Lunar and Planetary Science conference in Houston last month.  It appears that the salty water jets blasting out of the moon’s south pole reach all the way to an interior ocean.  Scientists think that the ocean lies under 10 kilometers of ice.

Where the jets are getting their supply of liquid water has been a question scientists have puzzled over for years. Is friction caused by tidal stresses heating the insides of the stripes, which melts the ice and shoots it upwards? Or do the fissures actually extend all the way down through Enceladus’ crust to a subsurface ocean of liquid water, and through tidal pressure pull vapor and ice up to the surface?

Researchers are now confident that the latter is the case.

No longer can researchers assume, therefore, that the eruptions are a near-surface phenomenon.  The heat source reaches deep into the moon, implying melting on a vaster scale that requires even more heat.

In a presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference titled “How the Jets, Heat and Tidal Stresses across the South Polar Terrain of Enceladus Are Related” (see the PDF here) Cassini scientists note that the amount of heating due to tidal stress seen along Enceladus’ tiger stripes isn’t nearly enough to cause the full spectrum of heating observed, and the “hot spots” that have been seen don’t correlate with the type of heating caused by shear friction.

The heat must be “carried upwards along with the pressurized water vapor from the subsurface sea, warming the areas around individual vents as well as serving to keep their channels open.”  You don’t say. How long has that been going on?  They didn’t say.

Color Divination Keeps the Faith

Meanwhile, other planetary scientists found a new story line to keep the Saturn system old.  A JPL press release turned public attention to a homey analogy.  “Saturn Is Like an Antiques Shop, Cassini Suggests; Moons and Rings Date Back to Solar System’s Birth.”  Perhaps so, if that birth were recent; but no, they mean billions of years.  Apparently they don’t want to devalue their antiques.

Gianrico Filacchione from Italy did some divination with colors on the rings and moons and concluded that the Saturn system is old.  One myth can lead to another.  Since the little F-ring shepherd moon Prometheus has a similar color to the rings, Bonnie Buratti added to the story. “Scientists had been wondering whether ring particles could have stuck together to form moons — since the dominant theory was that the rings basically came from satellites being broken up,” she said, preparing the reader for a dramatic turnaround.  “The coloring gives us some solid proof that it can work the other way around, too.”  Solid proof has a nice-sounding ring of certainty to it.  If it “can” work the other way around, why, then, it must have.

The press release conveniently left out any discussion of how long the Enceladus eruption affair has been going on.  The handlers of these aberrant moons know their job: mitigate the bad news by controlling the focus of attention.

Divination, distraction, domination.  That’s how the scientific guild maintains its grab on public trust.  Divination: One cannot look at color and come up with an age.  The article even said that the deposits from the geyser spray and dust from asteroids is only skin deep.  Does that sound like it’s been going on for billions of years?  Distraction: Let’s not talk about the age of these things; let’s talk about life!  If there’s water going out of this moon, maybe it produced the “ingredients for life” or could “support life.”  Domination: Just state the party line boldly and repeatedly.  That should be enough to keep the peasants from doubting the experts’ “understanding” of how things came to be.  After all, they’re scientists – the knowers of the culture.  It would be very upsetting for the knowers not to know.

Note to secularists: Our criticisms here are not with the observational data.  We love observational data; more power to the champion observers and data collectors of the Cassini team.  The criticisms are directed at interpretations that violate the evidence: interpretations that insist on billions of years of undirected natural processes producing planets, life, and human brains possessing the audacity to imagine their own undesigned brains being capable of assessing true knowledge.


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