Io's Volcanoes are in the Wrong Place

Jupiter‘s moon Io is the most volcanically active world in the Solar System, with hundreds of volcanoes, some erupting lava fountains up to 250 miles high.   Image © NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

However, concentrations of volcanic activity is significantly displaced from where they are expected to be based on models that predict how the moon’s interior is heated, according to NASA and European Space Agency researchers.

This five-frame sequence of images from NASA’s New Horizons mission captures the giant plume from Io’s Tvashtar volcano. Snapped by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft flew past Jupiter in 2007, this first-ever movie of an Io plume clearly shows motion in the cloud of volcanic debris, which extends 330 km (205 miles) above the moon’s surface. Only the upper part of the plume is visible from this vantage point. The plume’s source is 130 km (80 miles) below the edge of Io’s disk, on the far side of the moon.

Jupiter's moon Io Image © NASA

Io is caught in a tug-of-war between Jupiter’s massive gravity and the smaller but precisely timed pulls from two neighboring moons that orbit further from Jupiter – Europa and Ganymede. Io orbits faster than these other moons, completing two orbits every time Europa finishes one, and four orbits for each one Ganymede makes. This regular timing means that Io feels the strongest gravitational pull from its neighboring moons in the same orbital location, which distorts Io’s orbit into an oval shape. This in turn causes Io to flex as it moves around Jupiter.

For example, as Io gets closer to Jupiter, the giant planet’s powerful gravity deforms the moon toward it and then, as Io moves farther away, the gravitational pull decreases and the moon relaxes. The flexing from gravity causes tidal heating — in the same way that you can heat up a spot on a wire coat hanger by repeatedly bending it, the flexing creates friction in Io’s interior, which generates the tremendous heat that powers the moon’s extreme volcanism.

Io's Volcanoes Image © NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

“Our analysis supports the prevailing view that most of the heat is generated in the asthenosphere, but we found that volcanic activity is located 30 to 60 degrees East from where we expect it to be,” said Christopher Hamilton of the University of Maryland, College Park. Hamilton, who is stationed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is lead author of a paper about this research published January 1 in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“We performed the first rigorous statistical analysis of the distribution of volcanoes in the new global geologic map of Io,” says Hamilton. “We found a systematic eastward offset between observed and predicted volcano locations that can’t be reconciled with any existing solid body tidal heating models.”

Jupiter's moon Io with Volcanoes Image © NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Goddard Space Flight Center

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