An artistic illustration showing a red dwarf and exoplanets. Depositphotos.

Seeing Volcanoes on Distant Alien Worlds


Venturing into the cosmos to unravel the mysteries of exoplanetary volcanic activity requires more than the sharpest image from a top-notch telescope. It demands a profound grasp of physics, particularly the principles of light, to extract scientific insights from the visuals captured by eminent telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

A cadre of physics modelers is dedicated to understanding the appearances of varied scenarios through different telescope technologies. A fresh paper from researchers across UC Riverside, NASA Goddard, American University, and the University of Maryland, posted on the arXiv preprint server, embodies this endeavor. The team endeavored to envisage what volcanic activity on an exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star might look like.

Why Volcanic Activity Matters

Volcanic activity serves as a window to peek into an exoplanet’s underbelly, revealing the geology that lies beneath. Essentially, volcanoes hurl the interior material of the planet onto its surface and into the atmosphere. Capturing images of a volcanic exoplanet’s atmosphere thus grants telescopes a glimpse into the planet’s inner composition.

Presently, only a handful of telescopes, with JWST being one, possess the ability to detect exoplanet atmospheres, albeit around red dwarfs. The brilliance of stars akin to our sun overpowers the telescope’s sensors, rendering the data unusable.


The Horizon of Telescope Technology: LUVOIR

The blueprint of future telescope technology, specifically the LUVOIR telescope, now in its conceptual stage, holds promise. LUVOIR, per its current design, might directly image the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting sun-like stars at around 1 AU distance.

Deciphering images of such distant celestial bodies necessitates a unique comprehension. Unlike straightforwardly spotting the Eiffel Tower in a photo, it’s about parsing data in a manner conducive to scientific understanding. Testing the telescopes on known objects is a strategy to develop a cipher for interpretation.

Earth as the Cipher and Volcanoes as the Key

Earth, one of the most thoroughly studied objects in the cosmos, and its volcanic eruptions provide a critical baseline for understanding exoplanetary atmospheres. The paper delves into the exoEarth model, exploring the spectral alterations triggered by various volcanic eruptions.

LUVOIR, equipped with three main spectrographs focusing on different light wavelengths, could detect elements like water, especially disrupted by volcanic aerosols. For instance, the paper notes, “H2O absorption features were almost entirely concealed by volcanic aerosols while eruptions were ongoing,” indicating a potential spectral signature of volcanism.

The Spectral Signature of Volcanism and LUVOIR’s Potential

The spectral variance in the UV and visible light spectra, especially around the ozone spectral line, could hint at active eruptions. The model discussed suggests a 90% likelihood of spotting such a planet with LUVOIR, provided we observe 47 Earth-like planets around sun-like stars.


With LUVOIR’s launch anticipated in 2039, the quest to analyze exoplanet atmospheres and volcanic activity extends well into the 2040s. While it may seem a distant future, it paves the way for theorists to refine models, prepping for a plethora of cosmic phenomena awaiting discovery.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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