Ice Volcanoes Everywhere?

Maybe it has something to do with the sweltering heat these days, but it seems that every time I turn around, someone else is talking about ice volcanoes. First it was Saturn's moon Enceladus. Then two other Saturnian moons had them: Tethys and Dione. Now Pluto's largest moon, Charon, might be spewing frozen geysers.

This artist illustration shows Charon with Pluto in the background. Geysers — like what is seen at 10 o'clock — might be the reason Pluto's largest satellite is coated with fresh, crystalline ice.
Software Bisque/Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions/Sky-Skan, Inc.
The latest result comes courtesy of a group of astronomers who pointed the 8-meter Frederick C. Gillett telescope at Gemini Observatory toward the famous dwarf planet's satellite. Using Gemini, Jason Cook (Southwest Research Institute, Colorado) and Steven Desch (Arizona State University) captured some of the best spectra of Charon to date.

Quick mini-lecture about ice. In the solar system, water ice comes in two flavors: crystalline and amorphous. Crystalline is fresh (like what you find in your iced coffee), and it only turns amorphous (or old) after being bombarded with cosmic rays and solar radiation. You can make old ice fresh again with heat — such as by hitting it with meteorites — but most folks would expect ice in the outer solar system to be amorphous.

And that's what made Charon so wacky. Past observations revealed that it's completely coated with crystalline ice. The whole moon somehow needed to be resurfaced with ice every 100,000 years. But the impact environment out there isn't ferocious enough to "freshen" ice that quickly. The ice needed to come from somewhere else.

Turns out that it's all about antifreeze. In the press release and a paper in Astrophysical Journal the group touts "the best evidence yet for the existence of ammonia hydrates on Kuiper Belt objects." Just like on Earth, ammonia acts as antifreeze and depresses the melting point of the water.

Putting the pieces together, heat from decaying radioactive elements deep inside Charon warm the subsurface ice. In time the ice melts (thanks to the presence of the ammonia hydrates) and it oozes out cracks in the frozen surface. If that happens under pressure, you get ice volcanoes.

Snow cones anyone?

21 thoughts on “Ice Volcanoes Everywhere?

  1. astro-nut

    It is interesting to note that there is no evidence whatsoever for there being geysers on Charon, but scientists speculate that there are because the ice can’t possibly be millions of years old. Did anybody ever consider that maybe the ice isn’t that old? Maybe only 6000 years old, as the Bible, the only eyewittness acount of the beginning of the universe, tells us? When scientists have preconceived notions about things, such as the age of the solar system, they have to go to great extremes and make fanciful speculations when the evidence proves otherwise. But they do not question their assumptions.

  2. Cerddor

    I’m sorry, Astro-Nut, but nowhere does the Bible claim that the universe is just 6000 years old. That dubious piece of information comes to us from a 17th century Archbishop named James Ussher who used a lot of questionable assumptions, not the least of which were a) that the Bible contains ALL human lineage with no gaps, and b) that the world was created in 6 days. Since the phrase “son of” can easily mean “descendant of,” and ‘day” can easily mean “period of time” — in many languages — we immediately have only a lower limit set on the time, not an upper one.

    Look at a distant galazy and do some simple math. There is no possible way to come to any conclusion other than the light from that galaxy has been traveling for millions of years to get to your eye. Therefore, the universe is at least that old.

    Why do people want to put limits on God? Why confine him to 6000 years or to a few hundred parsecs?? No, the God I [attempt to] understand and worship is eternal in existence and ability; His creations and infinite in size and scope. Any apparent conflict between His creation and the bumbling attempts of priests or men to limit Him are the mitakes of men. The Bible explains only WHAT He did, not HOW or WHEN He did it. I Thank Him we live in a day when science is beginning to help us understand those aspects, so that I can feel a greater appreciation for Him than our ancestors could.

  3. LordBoss

    Listen guys, mixing religion and science is a tricky thing. I look at it as impossible since religion is based on faith and science on actual observable evidence. Taking the Bible literally is not its true purpose and shouldn’t be used on a scientific basis. Anyway, trying to make sense of religion and mixing into it all the scientific data of today just gives me a headache. Sooner or later I’ll meet my maker and then he/she can explain it. Until then, ignorance, in my case, is bliss.

  4. LordBoss

    Listen guys, mixing religion and science is a tricky thing. I look at it as impossible since religion is based on faith and science on actual observable evidence. Taking the Bible literally is not its true purpose and shouldn’t be used on a scientific basis. Anyway, trying to make sense of religion and mixing into it all the scientific data of today just gives me a headache. Sooner or later I’ll meet my maker and then he/she can explain it. Until then, ignorance, in my case, is bliss.

  5. astro-nut

    In response to Cerddor:

    The Bible very clearly states that the earth was created in 6 days in Genesis 1. After it tells what God did on a certain day, it ends with the phrase “and the evening and the morning were the (?) day”, which cannot be construed to mean anything but a literal, 24-hr day. In addition, when God gives the basis for the 7-day week, in Exodus 20:11, he says “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is”. There are many more examples I could give, but that would take too much space. In reguards to Ussher’s dates, there is no evidence for gaps, and even if there were gaps, the world was already created, so that would not give time for evolution.

    The distant light problem has been dealt with by many people, including a very scientifically accurate theory by Dr. Russell Humpreys (see http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v17/i2/cosmology.asp for an in-depth explanation). Besides, the Big Bang has a light travel problem of its own.

    Believing what God said in his Word is not limiting God: rather it is believing what he said. For example, if you said “I am going to observe the planets tonight”, and I told someone else, “Cerddor is going to observe planets tonight, they could say, “you’re limiting him to only planet observing. How do you know he’s not going to observe deep-sky objects?” Am I limiting you? No, I just believed what you said. By the same token, saying God created in six days is not limiting him, it is believing him, which is he wants us all to do. If the Bible can’t be trusted in the foundational areas, why trust it at all?

  6. astro-nut

    The Bible CAN be trusted, especially in foundational areas. While the Bible is not a science textbook, wherever it touches on science, that is repeatable, observational science, the kind that can be done in a laboratory, it is accurate. I would be interested to see any evidence that proves the Creation account is wrong. And don’t try to give me radiometric dating; that is riddled with evolutionary assumptions, and fudged to give the dates that fit the evolutionary time scale. The Bible is not “sanctimonious superstitions”, rather it is our History Book of the Universe. The Bible predicted many things that would have seemed wierd at the time they were written, but have been verified by modern science, such as expansion of the universe, the earth is round, etc. To trust an eyewitness account is much more logical than man’s hypotheses.

  7. astro-nut

    I am not saying that is impossible that there be geysers on Charon. There could be, but at the present there is no evidence for them whatsoever, just the fact that the evidence doesn’t fit the accepted theory. Rather that modify the theory, they propose that something else must be there to make the theory work. I can assure you that when the New Horizons spacecraft passes Pluto, if there are no geysers on Charon, evolutionists will propose something else, rather than modify their theory.

  8. Journeyman

    If anyone feels that “Astro-Nut” is subverting this forum to proselytize in violation of the posted rules of this website (advertising, posting objectionable material, etc.), then I urge them to report the violation accordingly. Attempting to respond to Astro-Nut’s postings with careful reasoning and objective data is pointless, and serves only to provide him/her an ego boost.

  9. LordBoss

    Well I’ll say this. The only thing this proves without a doubt is that when you mix religion ans science together, people get crazy. Astro-Nut is just that. A nut. And all of us who try to reason with him are just as nuts for doing so. Just keep that in mind some thing cannot be debated.

  10. Cerddor

    Astro-nut, thank you for the responses. I appreciate the opportunity to understand and debate our beliefs.

    Your own argument supports mine. In your mind, and that of your friend, you’ve imagined a limit of 7 objects on my hypothetical observing targets. But, I could be observing dwarf planets, exo-planet evidence (through internet hookup to a powerful instrument) or – assuming I had access to some extremely powerful instrument that you know nothing of (isn’t that what God theoretically has?) – I could be observing planets in other galaxies. Or I could be speaking in another language (wouldn’t God, Moses, or whoever do that?), or from a different era of this earth’s existence (same?), where the meaning of “planet” is “any body which orbits another.” So indeed, I could be looking well beyond the solar system at objects in the “deep sky.” Your being correct or not is dependent on your interpretation of my language.

  11. Cerddor

    The same is true of religious – or scientific – reference. Note that English dictionaries (and those of many other languages) state that “day” can mean “a time or period; an age;” “morning: a period of first development;” and “evening: latter portion.” Since we measure our day by positions of the sun, which didn’t exist until the 4th creation “day,” then how can we assume your meaning of “day,” “morning,” and “evening” over another? The periods of darkness and light which were called “day” and “night” after the 1st day could have had any length, or none at all. We are in the “morning” of the information age, the “evening” of the age of tyrannical monarchies, the “day” of discovery or freedom or wickedness or whatever. To assume one meaning of a biblical word or phrase while arbitrarily dismissing all others is part of what I mean by “placing limits on God.”

  12. Cerddor

    Even the link you sent (thank you; interesting) supports this possibility by proposing that the first 3 creation days could have been 10E13 times as long as current days… to an external observer, which we essenmtially are, because our time = the author’s “astronomical time”. That comes to billions of years, ballpark-close to what science has observed! It’s funny how everything agrees when you realize that truth can come from various sources.

    Which brings me to the other posters quoted here – I appreciate your opinions, but disagree that there is any harm, offense, or taboo in politely debating religious and scientific observation. Both have truth; and truth, in the end, cannot conflict with itself. I for one am grateful for the scientific and religious advances of the past 400 years that have brought us out of the superstition-cloaked Dark Ages; and am looking forward to a brighter future “day” when more open discussion and search brings us to greater awareness of things as they really are. Any perceived discrepancy between religion and science is the fault of men’s/women’s interpretation of language or observations.

  13. Star Gazer

    I am a beginner in the world of astromony, even though I’ve been gazing at the stars as long as I can remember (without my telescope). It never ceases to amaze me at the beauty in our universe and here on Earth and I thank God for it all. When I look at the various stars and planets out there I am in awe and words utterly fail me. Again being a beginner in the exciting world of astronomy I have many questions (too many in fact) but I am curious about what they say about Charon. The article speculates that there are ice volcanoes or gysers on this moon. I know that there are very high powered telescopes, the Hubble telescope etc., but has anyone SEEN a geyser or volcano on Charon or is it all speculation and hypothosis? Or are they just waiting for the New Horizons spacecraft to do a fly-by to prove it? Please if someone knows the answer would you please comment on it?

  14. David Tytell

    Star Gazer — Nobody has seen a geyser on Charon yet. The story is all circumstantial evidence. Several teams now have hinted that ice volcanoes could exist. This is more evidence supporting those claims. New Horizons might get lucky and see volcanoes the same way Cassini saw them on Enceladus. We can hope.
    Dave Tytell

  15. astro-nut

    To Cerddor: I appreciate your politness and willingness to have a friendly debate. Yes, the word day can have other meanings than the 24-hr period, but the context determines what the meaning is. In the first chapter of Genesis, the context is a historical narrative. In addition every time the word ‘day’ is used, it says “and the evening and the morning were the (?) day”. When used like this, the word day can only mean a literal, 24-hr day. Trying to insert any other meaning into Genesis 1 would require us to change the meaning of the language, rendering it nonsense, because if the language can be changed, it means nothing! Besides, there is no other verse in the Bible that suggests that the creation week was any longer than a week: see Exodus 20:11.
    The only reason for suggesting that it is longer is to fit in evolution. The only legitimate ‘problem’ for the 6000 yr-old universe is the distant-light problem, and creationists have proposed several solutions to this (keep in mind that the Big Bang has a light travel problem of its own). All radiometric dating methods are based on three assumptions, which if you study into it, one of them, that there was no contamination of elements in the rock, is impossible! But evolution must have billions of years to occur (if it could; it is statisticaly impossible), so evolutionists continue to promote long ages. The creationist position makes much more sense, both scientifically and Biblically.

  16. astro-nut

    I agree that any discrepancy between the Bible and science is the fault of people’s interpretations. Evolutionists’ interpretation of the evidence, not the evidence, leads them to their antibiblical conclusions. However, I feel that ‘religion’ is not an appropriate term to describe the Bible. Sure, many people that claim the Bible as their ‘holy book’ are just in a religion; but when the Bible is taken literally, just as it reads, it is not a religious book, rather, as I said earlier, the History Book of the Universe. Every word of it is true. I realize this seems strange; it is probably why I was called ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ earlier. But when taken this way, everything in life, in the physical world, and the spiritual world begins to make sense.

  17. Star Gazer

    It’s been interesting to follow all the comments that have been posted so far.

    If you are enamored with a subject normally you try to devour everything that you can get on that subject. If you’re into astronomy you read as many books, or get on the web and hunt for all the knowledge that you can find. So why not look at the Bible too? Why is this the first “book” that is chucked out the window when it comes to dealing with the heavens and creation? I’ve seen so many people handle it as if it’s a timebomb ready to explode in their hands. The Bible has been around for well over two thousand years so why not consult what it has to say and give it a chance? Not only does Genesis speak of our creation, but it also talks about the beauty around us and the stars in the heavens. One of the oldest books in the Bible, Job 38.31-32 talks about the constellations Pleiades and Orion. The Bible is full of truth.

    God made all this beauty around us and there is still much for us to discover! My mind nor imagination can begin to dream of what else is out in our universe beyond what our most powerful telescopes can see. We are still discovering new stars and galaxies out there and that probably doesn’t even scratch the surface.

    I’m curious about the other galaxies and even about the one that we live in. What makes up the other planets, how many moons do they have, how many comets are their in our galaxy, etc.? While we learn, debate and explore lets not forget what an incredible universe that we live in!

  18. Cerddor

    Thank you, Astro-nut, for your courtesy and explanations. Please let me make sure I understand – it’s your stance that “day” in Gen 1 can mean only “24-hour period by our current reference frame” (understanding that time is relative in different frames of reference); is that correct? If so, we’re probably at an impasse, because a) the one reference you’ve given clearly says the only logical explanation for the light-travel “problem” is that the first 3 days were 10E13 as long as our current days; b) the sun – our current reference for 24-hr days – was not created until the 4th day, so “days” prior to that could not be days by our current standard; c) the Bible itself, and common language, use the meanings of “morning” and “day” that I suggest are possible; see Eze 7:7-10. Then again, this reference is as irrelevant as Ex 20:11, since they both were written in a time and circumstances completely different from Genesis 1.

  19. astro-nut

    Yes, my position is that the days in Genesis 1 were 24 hrs long. The theory I referenced is only a theory – I am not dogmatic about it, it could be wrong – but it states that while time here on Earth was ticking at a normal rate, on the fourth day, when God created celestial objects, God expanded the universe (the phrase ‘he streached out the heavens’ appears many times in the Bible) and so time in the outer reaches of space was slowed down (with Einstien’s theories, we realize that time is not a constant – it is relative depending on gravitational force and speed). For more info on this theory, check out the book “Starlight and Time” by Dr. Russell Humphreys. But the point is, when you read Genesis 1, the text does not indicate anything other than a literal, 24 hr day, and the only reason to change the meaning of ‘day’ would be to insert evolution.

  20. mikeemmert

    Charon has occulted stars, but the dimming expected if an atmosphere were present has not been seen. Charon has no atmosphere more than a millionth that of Earth’s. You would expect ice geysers to produce an atmosphere.

    Nix and Hydra are much smaller than Charon, so perhaps it is they that have the ice geysers.

    I can’t see radiogenic heating on such a small object as Charon. I think it must be tidal.

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