31May2015

Astronomers Spot Huge Lava Lake on Io

This global view of Io was obtained by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft on 19 September 1997 at a range of more than 500,000 km (310,000 miles). In this image, deposits of sulfur dioxide frost appear in white and grey hues while yellowish and brownish hues are probably due to other sulfurous materials. Bright red materials and ‘black’ spots with low brightness mark areas of recent volcanic activity and are usually associated with high temperatures and surface changes. Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona.

This global view of Io was obtained by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft on 19 September 1997 at a range of more than 500,000 km (310,000 miles). In this image, deposits of sulfur dioxide frost appear in white and grey hues while yellowish and brownish hues are probably due to other sulfurous materials. Bright red materials and ‘black’ spots with low brightness mark areas of recent volcanic activity and are usually associated with high temperatures and surface changes. Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona.

Scientists analyzing high-resolution images from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory in Arizona have discovered an enormous lava lake on Io, Jupiter’s fifth moon and the third largest.

Io is only slightly bigger than our own Moon, but is the most geologically active body in our Solar System. Hundreds of volcanic areas dot its surface, which is mostly covered with sulphur and sulphur dioxide.

The largest of these volcanic features, named Loki after the Norse god often associated with fire and chaos, is a volcanic depression called patera in which the denser lava crust solidifying on top of a lava lake episodically sinks in the lake, yielding a raise in the thermal emission which has been regularly observed from Earth.

Loki, only 200 km in diameter, was, up to recently, too small to be looked at in details from any ground based telescope. Now, thanks to the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer (LBTI), a group of astronomers was able to look at Loki Patera in details for the first time from Earth.

This image shows the lava lake at the volcano Loki on Jupiter’s moon Io (orange). Image credit: LBTO / NASA.

This image shows the lava lake at the volcano Loki on Jupiter’s moon Io (orange). Image credit: LBTO / NASA.

“We have seen bright emissions – always one unresolved spot – ‘pop-up’ at different locations in Loki Patera over the years. New images from the LBTI show for the first time that these emissions arise simultaneously from different sites in Loki Patera,” said Prof Imke de Pater of the University of California, Berkeley.

“This strongly suggests that the horseshoe-shaped feature is most likely an active overturning lava lake, as hypothesized in the past.” Team member Dr Chick Woodward from the University of Minnesota added: “studying the very dynamic volcanic activity on Io, which is constantly reshaping the moon’s surface, provides clues to the interior structure and plumbing of this moon.”

“It helps to pave the way for future NASA missions such as the Io Observer. Io’s highly elliptical orbit close to Jupiter is constantly tidally stressing the moon, like the squeezing of a ripe orange, where the juice can escape through cracks in the peel.” The results were published online in the May 2015 issue of the Astronomical Journal. Sci News.Com

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