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Io Is a Volcanic Hellscape of Fire and Ice
September 30, 2023

Io Is a Volcanic Hellscape of Fire and Ice

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Io Is a Volcanic Hellscape of Fire and Ice. Let’s Go Explore It., Let’s go explore it., One of Jupiter’s moons is a volcanic hellscape of fire and ice.

On March 9, 1979, Linda Morabito discovered a volcanic plume on Io, a moon of Jupiter, in one of the photos from Voyager 1. She wrote, ‘I could feel tears begin to roll down my face at the sight of a world more unexpected than imagination itself. … It was as if I had been gazing into destiny.’

In the 44 years since, Io has continued to amaze. Observations made by other spacecraft— Voyager 2, Galileo, Cassini, New Horizons, and currently, Juno—have revealed that Io is a dynamic hellscape of fire and ice. The surface temperature is a frigid 250 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, but Io’s volcanic eruptions produce extremely hot lavas that could be as high as 3,000 degrees (much hotter than we see today on Earth). Enormous lava lakes reaching more than 100 miles across dot Io’s surface. Fire fountains sporadically erupt and volcanic deposits change over a period of months. Amirani is the solar system’s longest active lava flow, stretching more than 200 miles. Io’s volcanic gases interact with Jupiter’s powerful magnetosphere to create the ominous-sounding ‘Io plasma torus,’ bathing Io in radiation.

Towering mountains, in the shape of tilted blocks and more than twice as tall as Mount Everest, were likely formed by Io’s crust fracturing as Io continuously turns itself inside out. And just like we have ocean tides on Earth, Io has tides of rock: Its mountains rise and fall and rise again by 200 feet in 42 hours (the time it takes Io to orbit Jupiter). The tides are caused by the synchronous dance of the inner three Galilean moons (Io, Europa, and Ganymede) in a gravitational tug-of-war with Jupiter. The flexing and friction of rock rides creates the heat that fuels Io’s volcanism; the heating is so severe that an ocean of magma more than 30 miles thick likely lies beneath Io’s crust.

On Feb. 22, 2001, astronomers using the Keck telescope in Hawaii (only 35 miles from the active volcano Kilauea) witnessed the most powerful volcanic eruption ever seen. With an enormous geyser of lava that would dwarf Kilauea’s eruptions, Io’s Surt volcano erupted with a power output of 80,000 gigawatts. For a short time, this one volcano on Io put out five times the power of all the world’s power plants combined.

To further study Io’s volcanoes, it would be best to send a trained geologist there to survey the landscape and then collect rock and gas samples for lab analysis, the way we study volcanoes here on Earth and discovered volcanism on our own moon. Debris from ancient volcanic eruptions on the moon was spotted by the Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan, who were shocked to see orange glass beads on the colorless lunar surface. These volcanic beads (produced in a fire-fountain eruption more than 3.5 billion years ago) hold secrets not recorded in other moon rocks: They contain volatiles (including water!) from the lunar interior.

We can’t do the same thing on Io, however—it’s too dangerous. If astronauts ever actually did make it to the surface of Io—like the poor saps in the 1981 Sean Connery film Outland—they would only survive a few hours (at the very most). For Io, a repurposed Agent 007 won’t work; we’ll need a different strategy.

I’m currently leading a group of scientists and engineers in developing an exciting robotic space mission to explore Io’s volcanoes the same way a human geologist would: by observing eruptions up close and bringing samples back to the lab. If selected as part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, the mission will launch in the early 2030s, and will be implemented by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL pulls off daring feats of space exploration, like landing a car-sized rover on Mars (twice), which is why their motto is ‘Dare Mighty Things.’

Since Io’s volcanic plumes are spewing gas and dust more than 100 miles into space, collecting samples from Io’s volcanoes is easier than getting samples from other worlds. Instead of performing a soft landing, trying to find the perfect spot to collect a sample, collecting a sample, and then launching again to return the sample to Earth, we can just fly through one of the volcanic plumes.

Our mission, named ‘Prometheus,’ would go into orbit around Jupiter and fly by Io a few times to scope out the active volcanoes and their plumes. Then we’d target one particular plume—most likely the Old Faithful of Io: Prometheus (after which our mission is named). Using autonomous navigation, we’d fly through the center of the plume several miles above Io’s surface while carefully avoiding those tall mountains. We would trap dust and gas within the plume in a pizza-sized collector while the rest of the spacecraft was safely shielded from impacts.

Flying at the altitude of a commercial airliner, we’d capture images and video of Io’s volcanic hellscape (lava lakes, foundering mountain blocks, fire fountains, lava flows) at high resolution, which would surely be some of the most stunning space images ever captured. With a powerful burn from the spacecraft’s rockets, we would leave the Jupiter system and bring pieces of Io home for high-precision analyses in laboratories on Earth.

Is this bonkers? Yes.

Is it possible? Also yes.

A rendering by James Tuttle Keane depicts what our spacecraft might look like in the moments after it passes through a volcanic plume on Io and collects a sample (with Jupiter in the background). The collected Io plume particles would probably be similar to those orange glass beads collected by Cernan and Schmitt on the moon, and we’d get as much mass as is in a pinch of table salt. This may seem miniscule, but modern lab techniques are so sensitive that we’ll be able to answer questions about the origins of Jupiter, its moons, and the rest of the solar system with less than a gram.

Measuring the composition of the returned dust will let us see into Io’s deep past, back to the beginning of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Do the Io pyroclastics contain trace amounts of water (like the orange glass beads on Earth’s moon) hinting that Io was once like its famous neighbor, the wet and possibly inhabitable Europa? What were the building blocks of the giant planets in the outer solar system? We can only answer these questions with an Io sample analyzed by modern laboratory techniques. And we can do even more in the future. The moon rocks are being analyzed in ways that we couldn’t have even imagined 50 years ago when we got them. Sample return is the gift that keeps on giving.

Though Io appears to be the eccentric oddball of the solar system, exploring it will help us understand the distant past of the Earth and worlds elsewhere in the universe. During Earth’s Archean period about 3 billion years ago, the mantle was hot and dry and some volcanoes erupted extremely hot lavas called komatiites, possibly similar to Io lavas. Only through detailed chemical analyses of Io’s volcanic material can we explore this connection to ancient Earth. The tidal heating that drives Io’s volcanism operates on exoplanetary systems too, and can generate ‘exo-Ios,’ volcanic exomoons detectable by their sodium and potassium clouds near hot-Jupiter exoplanets.

Holding an ancient artifact in your hands, a natural artifact like a meteorite or man-made artifact like an arrowhead, invokes a sense of awe: What stories can this object tell? Scientific analyses of samples returned from the sun, comets, asteroids (including the just-returned Bennu samples), Mars, and the moon can reveal these stories. Measurements of space samples have repeatedly upended expectations and led to scientific discoveries ‘more unexpected than imagination itself.’ The early dynamics of the outer planets were likely responsible for the structure of the solar system we see today, and dictated the delivery of the ingredients necessary for life to the inner planets. But the outer planet region is unsampled, so these stories remain a mystery. Understanding Io’s present and past, as well as our own origins and place in the local cosmos, requires bringing a piece of Io back to Earth.


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