Researchers captured a stunning image of one of the brightest volcanoes in the solar system

In addition to the extremely bright eruption on the upper right, the lava lake Loki is visible (at center). (Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory/AURA)
In addition to the extremely bright volcanic eruption on the upper right, a lava lake is visible in the center of this image, which captured one of the solar system's brightest volcanoes. (Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory/AURA)

Imagine a volcanic explosion 10,000 times more powerful than the Eyjafjallajokull eruptions in Iceland that disrupted so much European air travel in 2010. An explosion that emits 20 Terawatts (yes, 20 trillion watts) of energy. An explosion so large that it produces "curtains of fire," spewing lava that quickly covers hundreds of square miles.

It sounds like the stuff of either nightmares or intergalactic thrillers, but it's what happened last summer on Io, one of Jupiter's moons.

An eight-meter telescope on a mountain in Hawaii happened to capture a remarkable image of the explosion, one of the brightest that researchers have ever seen in our solar system.

Io (pronounced eye-o) is the only known place in the solar system other than Earth with active volcanoes that erupt hot lava, according to astronomers. It's an important research source for people trying to understand the Earth's origins, since it's "the only place in the solar system that we see volcanoes of the type that were happening" when our planet first formed, according to University of California Berkeley astronomer Katherine de Kleer.

"On Earth, we can study this period by looking at volcanic rocks produced during that time, but Io gives us the chance to see these types of eruptions actively occurring -- to look back in time, in a sense," de Kleer told The Post.

Researchers including de Kleer observed Io for two weeks beginning in August 2013 and published results of their findings this week in the journal Icarus.

According to Gemini Observatory, "the original detection of the volcano was made simultaneously at Gemini and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility."

The Aug. 29, 2013, eruption was sort of like "the grand finale" after two other massive explosions, de Kleer said. It was captured by the Gemini Observatory telescope in Hawaii, which used "adaptive optics" to produce a "super-sharp near-infrared image," according to a Gemini news release.

Io, de Kleer said, is "completely covered" in volcanic activity. But large-scale eruptions were previously thought to be quite rare, happening every couple of years (only 13 were seen between 1978 and 2006). Observing back-to-back-to-back mega-eruptions last summer led researchers to believe that this particular sort of volcanic activity may be more common than they previously thought.

Or maybe they just happened to observe the moon on a couple of fluky days. Either way, the images make for good sci-fi fodder.

gemini_Io_justdates
These images of Io track the evolution of the eruption as it decreased in intensity over 12 days, according to Gemini Observatory. Due to rapid rotation, a different area of the Io surface is viewed on each night. (Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory/AURA)
Elahe Izadi is a general assignment national reporter for The Washington Post.
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