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Keck spies largest volcanic eruption

20 Nov 2002

The world's largest telescope captures dramatic images of the biggest volcanic eruption ever seen in the solar system.

The Keck II telescope in Hawaii has captured images of the largest volcanic eruption ever observed in the solar system. The eruption took place on Io, one of Jupiter's moons, in February 2001. Image analysis was only completed recently and the full results are due to be published in the journal Icarus this month.

"This eruption is the most energetic ever seen, both on Io and on Earth," said Franck Marchis, a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley, where the image analysis was performed. "Ground-based telescopes equipped with adaptive optics systems are the best tools for monitoring volcanic activity of Io. Future monitoring lies in the hands of terrestrial observers."

The adaptive optics systems deployed on both of the 10-meter optical telescopes at Keck respond to the changing turbulence of the atmosphere. A deformable mirror changes shape to precisely counteract the atmospheric distortions leaving the best possible astronomical images.

The telescope's infrared camera captured images of Io at three different wavelengths between 1 and 2.5 microns. The camera monitored the eruption during February 20 and 21 last year. Io was quiet on the first day but the researchers were amazed to see a small hot spot turn into a large bright eruption on the second day.

The team's data show that fountains of molten lava were propelled kilometers into the air. With temperatures approaching 1500 Kelvin, the heat in the lava flows was similar to that commonly seen on Earth.

Jacqueline Hewett is news reporter on Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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