Lava lakes on Io: Juno zooms in on Io’s volcanoes

Lava lakes: Satellite view of Io showing some dark spots for volcanos and 2 plumes on the edge.
The JunoCam instrument aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured 2 volcanic plumes rising above the horizon of Jupiter’s moon Io. Juno captured this image on February 3, 2024, from about 2,400 miles (3,800 kilometers). Juno also studied lava lakes on Io’s surface. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ SwRI/ MSSS.

NASA originally published this article on June 26, 2024. Edited by EarthSky.

Infrared imagery from the solar-powered Juno spacecraft heats up the discussion on the inner workings of Jupiter’s hottest moon.

Juno zooms in on volcanic processes at Io

New findings from NASA’s Juno probe provide a fuller picture of how widespread the lava lakes are on Jupiter’s moon Io. And they include first-time insights into the volcanic processes at work there. These results come courtesy of Juno’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument which “sees” in infrared light.

Researchers published a paper on Juno’s most recent volcanic discoveries on June 20 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment.

Io is certainly intriguing

Io has intrigued the astronomers since 1610, when Galileo Galilei first discovered the Jovian moon. It’s slightly larger than Earth’s moon. Some 369 years later, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft captured a volcanic eruption on the moon. Subsequent missions to Jupiter, with more Io flybys, discovered additional plumes … along with lava lakes.

Scientists now believe Io, which is stretched and squeezed like an accordion by neighboring moons and massive Jupiter itself, is the most volcanically active world in the solar system. But while there are many theories on the types of volcanic eruptions across the surface of the moon, little supporting data exists.

Images captured in close flyby

In both May and October 2023, Juno flew by Io, coming within about 21,700 miles (35,000 kilometers) and 8,100 miles (13,000 km), respectively. Among Juno’s instruments getting a good look at the beguiling moon was JIRAM.

False color image of an irregular oval in green and red with a whitish rim.
Infrared data collected October 15, 2023, by the JIRAM instrument aboard NASA’s Juno shows Chors Patera, a lava lake on Jupiter’s moon Io. The team believes the lake is largely covered by a thick, molten crust, with a hot ring around the edges where lava from Io’s interior is directly exposed to space. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ SwRI/ ASI/ INAF/ JIRAM/ MSSS.

Designed to capture the infrared light (which is not visible to the human eye) emerging from deep inside Jupiter, JIRAM probes the weather layer down to 30 to 45 miles (50 to 70 km) below the gas giant’s cloud tops. But during Juno’s extended mission, the mission team has also used the instrument to study the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The JIRAM Io imagery showed the presence of bright rings surrounding the floors of numerous hot spots.

Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, said:

The high spatial resolution of JIRAM’s infrared images, combined with the favorable position of Juno during the flybys, revealed that the whole surface of Io is covered by lava lakes contained in caldera-like features. In the region of Io’s surface in which we have the most complete data, we estimate about 3% of it is covered by one of these molten lava lakes. (A caldera is a large depression formed when a volcano erupts and collapses.)

Fire-breathing lava lakes

JIRAM’s Io flyby data not only highlights the moon’s abundant lava reserves, but also provides a glimpse of what may be going on below the surface. Infrared images of several Io lava lakes show a thin circle of lava at the border, between the central crust that covers most of the lava lake and the lake’s walls. Recycling of melt is implied by the lack of lava flows on and beyond the rim of the lake. Thus, it indicates a balance between melt that has erupted into the lava lakes and melt that is circulated back into the subsurface system.

Mura added:

We now have an idea of what is the most frequent type of volcanism on Io: enormous lakes of lava where magma goes up and down. The lava crust is forced to break against the walls of the lake, forming the typical lava ring seen in Hawaiian lava lakes. The walls are likely hundreds of meters high, which explains why magma is generally not observed spilling out of the paterae – bowl-shaped features created by volcanism – and moving across the moon’s surface.

JIRAM data suggests that most of the surface of these Io hot spots is composed of a rocky crust that moves up and down cyclically as one contiguous surface due to the central upwelling of magma. In this hypothesis, because the crust touches the lake’s walls, friction keeps it from sliding, causing it to deform and eventually break, exposing lava just below the surface.

Another possibility

However, an alternative hypothesis remains in play. Magma is welling up in the middle of the lake, spreading out and forming a crust that sinks along the rim of the lake, exposing lava.

Scott Bolton, principal investigator for Juno at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said:

We are just starting to wade into the JIRAM results from the close flybys of Io in December 2023 and February 2024. The observations show fascinating new information on Io’s volcanic processes. Combining these new results with Juno’s longer-term campaign to monitor and map the volcanoes on Io’s never-before-seen north and south poles, JIRAM is turning out to be one of the most valuable tools to learn how this tortured world works.

Juno executed its 62nd flyby of Jupiter – which included an Io flyby at an altitude of about 18,175 miles (29,250 kilometers) – on June 13. The 63rd flyby of the gas giant will be July 16.

Bottom line: NASA’s Juno spacecraft flew in close to Io and studied lava lakes, gleaning new information on the volcanic processes on this active volcanic moon.


Read more: Juno images of Europa reveal a complex, active surface

June 30, 2024

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