Tag Archives: Io

Io’s atmosphere freezes and reinflates daily

New data from the ground-based Gemini telescope suggests that Io’s sulfur dioxide atmosphere freezes and then reinflates each time the moon flies through Jupiter’s shadow.

A study led by SwRI’s Constantine Tsang concluded that Io’s thin atmosphere, which consists primarily of sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas emitted from volcanoes, collapses as the SO2 freezes onto the surface as ice when Io is shaded by Jupiter. When the moon moves out of eclipse and ice warms, the atmosphere reforms through sublimation, where ice converts directly to gas.

The data is somewhat uncertain, however, as it based on only two observations.

The location of the volcanoes on Titan are not where scientists had expected them to be.

The uncertainty of science: The location of the volcanoes on Titan are not where scientists had expected them to be.

As Io moves closer to Jupiter, the planet’s powerful gravity pulls hard on the moon, deforming it. This force decreases as Io retreats, and the moon bounces back. This cycle of flexing creates friction in Io’s interior, which in turn generates enormous amounts of volcano-driving tidal heat. Common sense suggests that Io’s volcanoes would be located above the spots with the most dramatic internal heating. But Hamilton and his colleagues found that the volcanoes are significantly farther to the east than expected.

Many of the news headlines, including the article above, have trumpeted how the volcanoes on Io are in the wrong place. (See also this article.) Not. The theories were wrong, not the volcanoes. Nature does what it wants to do. It is our job to figure out why.

The discovery of volcanoes on Io

discovery image

On March 8, 1979, as Voyager 1 was speeding away from Jupiter after its historic flyby of the gas giant three days earlier, it looked back at the planet and took some navigational images. Linda Morabito, one of the engineers in charge of using these navigational images to make sure the spacecraft was on its planned course, took one look at the image on the right, an overexposed image of the moon Io, and decided that it had captured something very unusual. On the limb of the moon was this strange shape that at first glance looked like another moon partly hidden behind Io. She and her fellow engineers immediately realized that this was not possible, and that the object was probably a plume coming up from the surface of Io. To their glee, they had taken the first image of an eruption of active volcano on another world!

Today, on the astro-ph preprint website, Morabito has published a minute-by-minute account of that discovery. It makes for fascinating reading, partly because the discovery was so exciting and unique, partly because it illustrated starkly the human nature of science research, and partly because of the amazing circumstances of that discovery. Only one week before, scientists has predicted active volcanism on Io in a paper published in the journal Science. To quote her abstract:
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Scientists have published the first complete global geological map of the Jupiter moon Io.

Scientists have published the first complete global geological map of the Jupiter moon Io.

The highly detailed, colorful map reveals a number of volcanic features, including: paterae (caldera-like depressions), lava flow fields, tholi (volcanic domes), and plume deposits, in various shapes, sizes and colors, as well as high mountains and large expanses of sulfur- and sulfur dioxide-rich plains. The mapping identified 425 paterae, or individual volcanic centers. One feature you will not see on the geologic map is impact craters. “Io has no impact craters; it is the only object in the Solar System where we have not seen any impact craters, testifying to Io’s very active volcanic resurfacing,” says Williams.

You can download the map here.