Recent analysis of data from NASA's Galileo spacecraft reveals a subsurface ocean of molten or partially molten magma beneath the surface of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io. The finding is the first direct confirmation of this kind of magma layer at Io and explains why the moon is the most volcanic object known in the Solar System. The research was conducted by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, Santa Cruz;, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
"Scientists are excited we finally understand where Io's magma is coming from and have an explanation for some of the mysterious signatures we saw in some of the Galileo's magnetic field data," said Krishan Khurana, lead author of the study and former co-investigator on Galileo's magnetometer team at UCLA. "It turns out Io was continually giving off a 'sounding signal' in Jupiter's rotating magnetic field that matched what would be expected from molten or partially molten rocks deep beneath the surface."
"It has been suggested that both the Earth and its moon may have had similar magma oceans billions of years ago at the time of their formation, but they have long since cooled," said Torrence Johnson, a former Galileo project scientist based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He was not directly involved in the study. "Io's volcanism informs us how volcanoes work and provides a window in time to styles of volcanic activity that may have occurred on the Earth and moon during their earliest history."
NASA's Voyager spacecraft discovered Io's volcanoes in 1979, making that moon the only body in the solar system other than Earth known to have active magma volcanoes. The energy for the volcanic activity comes from the squeezing and stretching of the moon by Jupiter's gravity as Io orbits the largest planet in the solar system.
Galileo was launched in 1989 and began orbiting Jupiter in 1995. Unexplained signatures appeared in magnetic field data from Galileo flybys of Io in October 1999 and February 2000. After a successful mission, the spacecraft was intentionally sent into Jupiter's atmosphere in 2003.
"During the final phase of the Galileo mission, models of the interaction between Io and Jupiter's immense magnetic field, which bathes the moon in charged particles, were not yet sophisticated enough for us to understand what was going on in Io's interior," said Xianzhe Jia, a co-author of the study at the University of Michigan.
Recent work in mineral physics showed that a group of rocks known as "ultramafic" rocks become capable of carrying substantial electrical current when melted. Ultramafic rocks are igneous in origin, or form through the cooling of magma. On Earth, they are believed to originate from the mantle. The finding led Khurana and colleagues to test the hypothesis that the strange signature was produced by current flowing in a molten or partially molten layer of this kind of rock.
Tests showed that the signatures detected by Galileo were consistent with a rock such as lherzolite, an igneous rock rich in silicates of magnesium and iron found in Spitzbergen, Sweden. The magma ocean layer on Io appears to be more than 50 kilometers (30 miles thick), making up at least 10 percent of the moon's mantle by volume. The blistering temperature of the magma ocean probably exceeds 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,200 degrees Fahrenheit).
With plumes of matter rising up to 186 miles (300 km) above the surface, Io is considered a prime candidate as a hotspot for extreme extraterrestrial life. In the image of Io, above, the lighter spot at the top right (north) of the planet, is an eruptive volcano.
"Everyone right away tends to categorically exclude the possibility of life on Io," said astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch at Washington State University. Conditions on Io might have made it a friendlier habitat in the distant past. If life did ever develop on Io, there is a chance it might have survived to the present day, Schulze-Makuch suggested.
"Life on the surface is all but impossible, but if you go down further into the rocks, it could be intriguing," he said. "We shouldn't categorize it as dead right away just because it's so extreme."
Computer models suggest Io formed in a region around Jupiter where water ice was plentiful. Io's heat, combined with the resulting possibility of liquid water, could have made life plausible.
“There must have been quite a lot of water on Io shortly after formation, judging from the amount of water ice on Europa and Ganymede,” said Schulze-Makuch.
Jupiter's radiation would have stripped this water from Io's surface, perhaps within 10 million years. At this point life could have retreated underground, where water might still be abundant, and geothermal activity and sulfur compounds could provide microbes with sufficient energy to survive.
Although no organic molecules have been detected on the moon’s surface, that does not mean they do not exist underground, Schulze-Makuch said. Any organic compounds that once existed on the surface or that may today still emanate from the subsurface -- which probably were naturally present in this region of space during Io's formation -- would get quickly destroyed by Jupiter's radiation.
The many lava tubes thought to exist on Io could serve as an especially favorable environment for life, Schulze-Makuch suggested, by protecting organisms from radiation. The lava tubes also could provide thermal insulation, trapping moisture and providing nutrients such as sulfurous compounds. Microbes are common in lava tubes on Earth, from ice and volcano zones in Iceland to hot sand-floored tubes in Saudi Arabia, and lava tubes are the most plausible cave environment for life on Mars, he added.
The primordial soup that any life on Io might have originated from was likely based on water, but the solvent of choice for organisms there might have drastically changed later on as the moon transformed. Hydrogen sulfide is one choice, as it is reasonably abundant in Io's shallow subsurface and remains liquid from negative 123 to negative 76 degrees F (-86 to -60 degrees C), falling within the environmental conditions that would prevail there. While it is not especially efficient as a solvent for ions, it does dissolve many substances, including many organic compounds. Other possibilities include sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid.
"I'm exploring with colleagues whether sulfur compounds could work as solvents of life," Schulze-Makuch noted. Given the wild extremes Io can swing through as it orbits Jupiter, one possible survival strategy for life in this challenging environment would be to remain dormant most of the time, only reverting back when nutrients were rich. "It'd be much easier for life to take a beating if it goes dormant regularly," Schulze-Makuch said.
The Daily Galaxy via Washington State University, solarsystem.nasa.gov and jpl.nasa.gov