Jupiter's fiery moon Io is providing scientists with a window on volcanic activity and colossal lava flows similar to those that raged on Earth eons ago, thanks to new pictures and data gathered by NASA's Galileo spacecraft.
The sharp images of Io were taken on Oct. 10 during the closest-ever spacecraft flyby of the moon, when Galileo dipped to just 611 kilometers (380 miles) above Io's surface. The new data reveal that Io, the most volcanic body in the solar system, is even more active than previously suspected, with more than 100 erupting volcanoes.
"The latest flyby has shown us gigantic lava flows and lava lakes, and towering, collapsing mountains," said Dr. Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, a member of the Galileo imaging team. "Io makes Dante's Inferno seem like another day in paradise."
Ancient rocks on Earth and other rocky planets show evidence of immense volcanic eruptions. The last comparable lava eruption on Earth occurred 15 million years ago, and it's been more than 2 billion years since lava as hot as that found on Io, reaching 1,482 degrees Celsius or 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, flowed on Earth.
"No people were around to observe and document these past events," said Dr. Torrence Johnson, Galileo project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA. "Io is the next best thing to traveling back in time to Earth's earlier years. It gives us an opportunity to watch, in action, phenomena long dead in the rest of the solar system."
The new data focus on three of Io's most active volcanoes -- Pele, Loki and Prometheus. The vent region of Pele has an intense high-temperature hot spot that is remarkably steady, unlike lava flows that erupt in pulses, spread out over large areas, and then cool over time. This leads scientists to hypothesize that there must be an extremely active lava lake at Pele that constantly exposes fresh lava. Galileo's camera snapped a close-up picture showing part of the volcano glowing in the dark. Hot lava, at most a few minutes old, forms a thin, curving line more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) long and up to 50 meters (150 feet) wide. Scientists believe this line is glowing liquid lava exposed as the solidifying crust breaks up along the caldera's walls. This is similar to the behavior of active lava lakes in Hawaii, although Pele's lava lake is a hundred times larger.
Loki, the most powerful volcano in the solar system, consistently puts out more heat than all of Earth's active volcanoes combined. Two of Galileo's instruments -- the photopolarimeter radiometer and near-infrared mapping spectrometer -- have provided detailed temperature maps of Loki. "Unlike the active lava lake at Pele, Loki has an enormous caldera that is repeatedly flooded by lava, over an area larger than the state of Maryland," said Dr. Rosaly Lopes-Gautier of JPL, a member of the spectrometer team.
Observations of Prometheus made early in the Galileo mission showed a new lava flow and a plume erupting from a location about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the area where the plume was observed in 1979 by NASA's Voyager spacecraft. New Galileo data clarify where lava is erupting, advancing, and producing plumes. The most unexpected result is that the 75 kilometer- (50 mile-) tall plume erupts from under a lava flow, far from the main volcano. The plume is fed by vaporized sulfur dioxide-rich snow under the lava flow.
Mountains on Io are much taller than Earth's largest mountains, towering up to 16 kilometers (52,000 feet) high. Paradoxically, they do not appear to be volcanoes. Scientists are not sure how the mountains form, but new Galileo images provide a fascinating picture of how they die. Concentric ridges covering the mountains and surrounding plateaus offer evidence that the mountains generate huge landslides as they collapse under the force of gravity. The ridges bear a striking resemblance to the rugged terrain surrounding giant Olympus Mons on Mars.
Scientists hope to learn more about dynamic Io when Galileo swoops down for an even closer look on Nov. 25 from an altitude of only 300 kilometers (186 miles). Because Io's orbit is bathed in intense radiation from Jupiter's radiation belts, there is a risk of radiation damage to spacecraft components. In fact, several spacecraft systems sustained damage during the October flyby. Given these radiation risks, the Io flybys were scheduled near the end of the spacecraft's two-year extended mission.
Galileo entered orbit around Jupiter and its moons on Dec. 7, 1995, for a two-year prime mission. JPL manages the Galileo mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.
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