Satellites watch Mauna Loa, world's largest active volcano, erupt in Hawaii (photos)

An infrared satellite view of Mauna Loa erupting in Hawaii on Nov. 27.
(Image credit: NOAA)

The world's largest active volcano has erupted after being quiet for 38 years.

Hawaii's Mauna Loa erupted on Sunday (Nov. 27) at 11:30 p.m. local time (Nov. 28 at 4:30 a.m. EST or 0930 GMT), releasing a large plume of ash and toxic gasses along with multiple lava flows. So far, the lava flows are contained within the volcano's summit and do not pose a threat to surrounding communities, according to a statement (opens in new tab) released by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Hawaii Volcano Observatory.

Satellites operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) observed the eruption from overhead this weekend, offering a bird's eye view of the sheer power of Mauna Loa and the dangers such an eruption can pose.

Related: How satellites have revolutionized the study of volcanoes

NOAA's GOES West satellite witnessed the eruption from its position in geosynchronous orbit. An animated image shared by NOAA (opens in new tab) shows both the heat signature of the eruption and a large plume of gas spreading to the northeast of the island of Hawaii (the "Big Island") following the event.

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Another image (opens in new tab) shared by NOAA Satellites Public Affairs shows the eruption in infrared, depicting in detail the heat created by the eruption.

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The USGS shared images of the resulting lava flow, which "are moving downslope to the north" of the volcano, according to a USGS tweet (opens in new tab)

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The National Weather Service's Honolulu office shared images of the resulting lava flow as it spilled out into Mauna Loa's caldera, the large hollow space inside the volcano.

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Meanwhile, images shared on social media reveal how the eruption turned the skies red throughout the surrounding Hawaiian islands.

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According to a USGS statement (opens in new tab), the eruption's "lava flows are contained within the summit area and are not threatening downslope communities." While that is currently reassuring news, the agency warns that "winds may carry volcanic gas and possibly fine ash and Pele's hair downwind." (Pele's hair is a fine volcanic glass that forms in hair-like strands as lava cools and stretches after ejected into the air.) 

However, the agency stresses that volcanic eruptions such as these can be "very dynamic," meaning conditions — and the direction lava flows — can change at a moment's notice.

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Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.