An Opening In Earths Crust Through Which Lava Flows A Close Look At A Lava Lake On Io

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A Close Look At A Lava Lake On Io

Without a doubt the weirdest-looking body to be observed by the visiting Voyager spacecraft back in the late 1970s, Io (pronounced eye-oh or eey-oh) is not like any other moon in our entire Solar System. Named for a maiden who was loved by Zeus in Greek myth, Io is the fifth of Jupiter’s many moons, as well as the third largest. According to ancient myth, Zeus turned the maiden Io into a heifer in an effort to hide her from the wrath of his jealous wife, Hera. Io was discovered by Galileo Galilei and Simon Marius in 1610, and is one of the four large Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Io’s strange surface, that has been likened to a “pepperoni pizza”, is pockmarked by hundreds of volcanic calderas that hurl sulfur hundreds of miles out into interplanetary space. In April 2015, astronomers using the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO) on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona, announced that they have made the first detailed observations through imaging interferometry of a lava lake on Io.

Io is only slightly bigger than Earth’s own bewitching Moon, but it is the most geologically active body in our Sun’s family. There are hundreds of volcanoes scarring its amazing surface, which is mostly coated by sulfur and sulfuric dioxide.

The largest of these many lava-spitting volcanoes, named Loki–after an ancient Norse god frequently associated with fire and chaosis a volcanic depression termed a patera. These are regions in which the denser lava crust, that is in the process of solidifying on top of a lava lake, periodically sinks into the lake–thus yielding a rise in the thermal emission which has been regularly observed from our own planet. Only approximately 200 kilometers in diameter, Loki is at least 600 million kilometers from Earth, and it was–up until only recently–much too small an object to be observed in detail from any ground-based optical/infrared telescope.

However, with its duo of 8.4 meter mirrors resting on the same mount 6 meters apart, the LBTO, by combining their light through interferometry, provides admirable pictures at the same level of detail as a 22.8 meter telescope. Because of the LBTO’s abilities, an international team of researchers was able to peer at the fiery, bizarre, and mysterious Loki patera, and observe weird details as never before seen from Earth. The new study is published in the April 30, 2015 issue of the Astronomical Journal.

“We combine the light from two very large mirrors coherently so that they become a single, extremely large mirror. In this way, for the first time, we can measure the brightness coming from different regions within the lake,” explained Dr. Al Conrad in an April 30, 2015 LBTO Press Release. Dr. Conrad, the lead author of the study, is an astronomer at the LBTO.


The surface of this very strange moon shows a large number of bizarre features. It looks more like a pizza topped with “the works” than a moon. The most striking features are the volcanoes, that many astronomers think are the result of a process termed tidal pumping, whereby Io is constantly being pulled at by Europa and Ganymede. Callisto is the only Galilean moon that does not participate in this particular dance. As a result of this gravitational dance of the three sister moons, Io is constantly being pulled at by Europa and Ganymede, and then pulled back in its orbit by Jupiter. This merciless “tug-if-war” literally pulls Io inside out, and distorts its surface by as much as 330 feet. The friction caused by this process manufactures a great quantity of heat within this tortured small moon. The process has been compared to the way a clothes hanger warms up when it is bent back and forth.

There are other strange features on Io that include lakes of molten sulfur, volcanic vents, non-volcanic mountains, and lava flows extending for hundreds of miles. The sulfur and assortment of various sulfuric compounds cause the variety of colors observed on Io’s surface, providing it with a mottled look, that has been called “diseased” by some astronomers.

It was once thought that Io was primarily a rocky body containing very little iron. However, more recent discoveries made by NASA’s Galileo probe show that the little moon actually harbors an immense iron core that accounts for almost 50% of its diameter. A recently detected hole in Jupiter’s magnetic field is causing some astronomers to speculate that Io may possess a magnetic field all its own. If this is the case, it would be the first moon known to possess one. Io also sports a tenuous atmosphere composed of sulfur dioxide with only scant quantities of other gases. While the other three Galilean moons likely harbor liquid water oceans beneath their crusts of ice, Io has no water. It is not an icy moon, even though its mean surface temperature is a truly frigid -243 degrees Fahrenheit.

Galileo was an unmanned spacecraft which observed Jupiter and its many moons, as well as several other bodies in our Solar System. It consisted of an orbiter and an entry probe, and was launched on October 18, 1989. It met its doom on September 21, 2003, when it was deliberately plunged into Jupiter’s crushing atmosphere at the end of its highly successful mission.

The quartet of Galilean moons are strikingly different from one another–ranging from the innermost and fiery Io, which hurls out more lava per unit than any other known body in our Sun’s family, to the outermost of the four sister moons, Callisto, which is an extremely cold sphere composed of muddy, frozen ice. Almost as large as the planet Mercury, Callisto appears dead and desolate–in marked contrast to the active, gaudy, and highly volcanic Io.

In between the two extremes of Io and Callisto are the other two sister Galilean moons, Europa and Ganymede. Europa’s strange, shattered, icy surface–that resembles an enormous cracked egg-shell–is thought to contain a global water ocean secreted beneath its frozen crust of ice. Many scientists think it is possible that Europa’s subsurface global ocean could harbor primitive tidbits of life that swim around in the frigid darkness. Ganymede is the largest moon in our Solar System, and it shows a weird patchwork surface composed of a number of faults, fractures, cracks, and grooves–hinting that this gigantic moon had a very violent past. Like Europa, Ganymede also is thought to contain a global ocean of water, hidden beneath its strange, frozen crust of ice.

Io’s volcanoes were first observed by Voyager 1 when it made its treacherous and lengthy journey through the Jupiter system back in 1979. The Galileo spacecraft later spotted more than 160 active volcanoes and a diverse range of eruption styles.

The old Voyager pictures unveiled Io’s weird and alien surface for the first time. A circular feature that was observed at the center of this “oddball” moon was ultimately shown to be one of Io’s numerous volcanoes–it was later named Prometheus.

Images obtained by the visiting Voyager also revealed sulfur to be a major ingredient of Io’s very hellish composition. Gaseous sulfur dioxide was seen to be drifting over one volcanic region. Frozen sulfur dioxide had also been detected by telescopes on Earth.

While Voyager’s sensors detected sulfur dioxide gas erupting from Io’s volcanoes, other substances contributed to the witch’s brew, as well. Water was notably absent, indicating that Io has been vigorously hurling its water away for much of its existence. Once the gases are tossed into the open, there are clues that they may partially condense and then somersault back down on to the moon’s colorful and strange patchwork surface. Ultraviolet data reveal small-grained solid particles, possibly as tiny as.00004 inches across, as well as some extremely brilliant blue patches. Some astronomers think that these very bright blue patches are “blue snow”, and they definitely stand out in dramatic contrast to the rest of Io’s mainly yellow and red splotched surface. The immense volcano, named Pele, which is about 600 miles across, intrigued Voyager scientists when a picture was taken of Io on March 5, 1979. The revealing image was obtained from a distance of approximately 240,000 miles. A very large number of the intriguing surface features on this very colorful, very bizarre moon–with the exception of its occasional mountains–may be made of sulfur.

A Close Look At A Lava Lake On Io

According to Dr. Philip Hinz, who leads the LBT Interferometer (LBTI) project at the University of Arizona Steward Observatory, the new result is the outcome of an almost-fifteen-year effort. “We built LBTI to form extremely sharp images. It is gratifying to see the system work so well,” Dr. Hinz commented in the April 30, 2015 LBTO Press Release. He further noted that this is only one of the unique aspects of LBTI. “We built the system both to form sharp images and to detect dust and planets around nearby stars at extremely high dynamic range. Recent results from LBTI… are great examples,” he explained.

The LMIRcam, which is the camera obtaining the images at the very heart of LBTI in the 3 to 5 micrometers near-infrared band, was the thesis work of Dr. Jarron Leisenring when he was a doctoral student at the University of Virginia. For Dr. Leisenring, now an instrument scientist for NIRcam (the Near InfraRed CAMera for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope) at Steward Observatory, “These observations mark a major milestone for me and the instrument team. LMIRcam has already been very productive these past few years; now, interferometric combination provides the last step in harnessing LBTI’s full potential and enabling a whole host of new scientific opportunities.”

A large number of raw images obtained by LMIRcam are combined to create a single high-resolution picture. “LBTI raw images are crossed by interference fringes. Therefore, these raw images do not look very sharp. However, modern image reconstruction (deconvolution) methods allow us to overcome the interference fringes and achieve a spectacular image resolution,” noted Dr. Gerd Weigelt in the April 30, 2015 LBTO Press Release. Dr. Weigelt is a professor at the Max-Planck-Institut fur Radioastronomie in Bonn, Germany.

Dr. Mario Bertero, a professor in Information Science at the University of Genoa in Italy, explained in the same Press Release that “Data processing based on deconvolution methods are basic for detecting details not directly distinguishable in the interferometric images. However they can generate artifacts and, for this reason, it is important to process the images with different methods for discriminating between relevant details and artifacts.”

“While we have seen bright emissions–always one unresolved spot–‘pop-up’ at different locations in Loki Patera over the years, these exquisite images from the LBTI show for the first time in groundbased images that emissions arise simultaneously from different sites in Loki Patera. This strongly suggests that the horseshoe-shaped feature is most likely an active overturning lava lake, as hypothesized in the past,” explained Dr. Imke de Pater, a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the April 30, 2015 LBTO Press Release.

Katherine de Kleer, a graduate student at Berkeley, noted in the same Press Release that “Two of the volcanic features are at newly-active locations. They are located in a region called the Colchis Regio, where an enormous eruption took place just a few months earlier, and may represent the aftermath of that eruption. The high resolution of the LBTI allows us to resolve the residual activity in this region into specific active sites, which could be lava flows or nearby eruptions.”

Observing the extremely dynamic volcanic activity on this bizarre “pizza moon”–which is constantly reshaping its surface–provides astronomers with valuable clues concerning Io’s hidden interior structure and plumbing. Therefore these new observations help pave the way for future NASA missions, such as the Io Volcano Observer. Io’s highly elliptical orbit, that brings it close to its enormous parent-planet, tidally stresses this tormented little moon-world constantly.

Dr. Christian Vellet, Director of the LBTO, noted in the April 30, 2015 LBTO Press Release that “This study marks a very important milestone for the Observatory. The unique features of the binocular design of the telescope, originally proposed more than 25 years ago, is its ability to provide images with the level of detail (resolution) only a single-aperture telescope at least 22.8 meters in diameter could reach. The spectacular observations of Io published today are a tribute to the many who believed in the LBT concept and worked very hard over more than two decades to reach this milestone.”

The LBT is an international collaboration among institutions in the U.S., Italy, and Germany.

“While there is still much work ahead to make the LBT/LBTI combination a fully operational instrument, we can safely state that the Large Binocular Telescope is truly a forerunner of the next generation of Extremely Large Telescopes slated to see first light in a decade (or more) from now,” Dr. Vellet added.

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