Image of the Day: Jupiter's Io --The Volcanic Epicenter of the Solar System Hosts a Massive New Eruption
A massive new eruption on Jupiter's moon Io covering more than a 30 square kilometer area was captured by Dr. Imke de Pater, Professor of Astronomy and of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California in Berkeley using the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii on August 15, 2013. The eruption is one of the top 10 most powerful eruptions that have been seen on this moon, where some lava towers reach up 250 kilometers high.
The Io image, taken on March 1, 2007, is a nearly true-color composite. The image shows a major eruption in progress on Io's night side, at the northern volcano Tvashtar. Incandescent lava glows red beneath a high volcanic plume, whose uppermost portions are illuminated by sunlight. The plume appears blue due to scattering of light by small particles in the plume.
An active volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io was captured in the image below taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. Tvashtar Catena, a chain of giant volcanic calderas centered at 60 degrees north, 120 degrees west, was the location of an energetic eruption caught in action in November 1999.
A dark, "L"-shaped lava flow to the left of the center in this more recent image marks the location of the November eruption. White and orange areas on the left side of the picture show newly erupted hot lava, seen in this false color image because of infrared emission. The two small bright spots are sites where molten rock is exposed to the surface at the toes of lava flows. The larger orange and yellow ribbon is a cooling lava flow that is more than more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) long. Dark, diffuse deposits surrounding the active lava flows were not there during the November 1999 flyby of Io.
This color mosaic was created by combining images taken in the near-infrared, clear, and violet filters from Galileo's camera. The range of wavelengths is slightly more than that of the human eye. The mosaic has been processed to enhance subtle color variations. The bright orange, yellow, and white areas at the left of the mosaic use images in two more infrared filters to show temperature variations, orange being the coolest and white the hottest material. This picture is about 250 kilometers (about 155 miles) across. North is toward the top and illumination from the Sun is from the west (left).
Although Io always points the same side toward Jupiter in its orbit around the giant planet, the large moons Europa and Ganymede perturb Io's orbit into an irregularly elliptical one. Thus, in its widely varying distances from Jupiter, Io is subjected to tremendous tidal forces. These forces cause Io's surface to bulge up and down (or in and out) by as much as 100 m (330 feet)! Compare these tides on Io's solid surface to the tides on Earth's oceans. On Earth, in the place where tides are highest, the difference between low and high tides is only 18 m (60 feet), and this is for water, not solid ground!
This tidal pumping generates a tremendous amount of heat within Io, keeping much of its subsurface crust in liquid form seeking any available escape route to the surface to relieve the pressure. Thus, the surface of Io is constantly renewing itself, filling in any impact craters with molten lava lakes and spreading smooth new floodplains of liquid rock. The composition of this material is not yet entirely clear, but theories suggest that it is largely molten sulfur and its compounds (which would account for the varigated coloring) or silicate rock (which would better account for the apparent temperatures, which may be too hot to be sulfur). Sulfur dioxide is the primary constituent of a thin atmosphere on Io. It has no water to speak of, unlike the other, colder Galilean moons. Data from the Galileo spacecraft indicates that an iron core may form Io's center, thus giving Io its own magnetic field.
Io's orbit, keeping it at more or less a cozy 422,000 km (262,000 miles) from Jupiter, cuts across the planet's powerful magnetic lines of force, thus turning Io into a electric generator. Io can develop 400,000 volts across itself and create an electric current of 3 million amperes. This current takes the path of least resistance along Jupiter's magnetic field lines to the planet's surface, creating lightning in Jupiter's upper atmosphere.
As Jupiter rotates, it takes its magnetic field around with it, sweeping past Io and stripping off about 1,000 kg (1 ton) of Io's material every second! This material becomes ionized in the magnetic field and forms a doughnut-shaped cloud of intense radiation referred to as a plasma torus. Some of the ions are pulled into Jupiter's atmosphere along the magnetic lines of force and create auroras in the planet's upper atmosphere. It is the ions escaping from this torus that inflate Jupiter's magnetosphere to over twice the size we would expect.
Io was discovered on 8 January 1610 by Galileo Galilei. The discovery, along with three other Jovian moons, was the first time a moon was discovered orbiting a planet other than Earth. The discovery of the four Galilean satellites eventually led to the understanding that planets in our solar system orbit the sun, instead of our solar system revolving around Earth. Galileo apparently had observed Io on 7 January 1610, but had been unable to differentiate between Io and Europa until the next night.
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Goddard Space Flight Center
« The Oldest Star in the Universe? --"A Primeval Dwarf Galaxy Sucked into the Emerging Milky Way" | Main | Alien Moons --'Habitable Hotspot' Prospects in New Kepler Mission Data (Today's Most Popular) »