Jupiter's volcanic moon Io is the Mordor of the solar system

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May 17, 2017

As we already know from Venus and Enceladus, our solar system has no shortage of space volcanoes, and now Io is literally a hot topic.

Io is so temperamental that its hundreds of extraterrestrial volcanoes explode with at least six eruptions per day, with 300-mile lava flows that would devastate Earth (devastation is an understatement). Volcanic hot spots on Io can blaze up to 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit. They also migrate, and if that isn’t terrifying enough in itself, some of the most violent episodes have triggered subsequent eruptions over 300 miles away.

Extreme volcanism has been known to occur on Io since Voyager 2 observed the Jovian moon in 1979, but what has recently had UC Berkeley astronomers fired up is a spectacular surface heat map imaged by the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory. What could almost pass for a sci-fi landscape was captured during a rare moment when Jupiter’s other moon, Europa, was in transit of Io. Icy Europa blocked out light from all those glowing eruptions when it passed in front of the other moon. It reflected only a trace amount of sunlight at infrared wavelengths impossible to detect with the human eye—meaning, if there was any time to image a heat map without interference from visible light, that was it.

Europa in transit of Io.

Loki Patera (yes, it was named after that Loki) is of particular interest because this seething ocean of lava is 126 miles of burning, bubbling madness.

"If Loki Patera is a sea of lava, it encompasses an area more than a million times that of a typical lava lake on Earth,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Katherine de Kleer, also the lead author of a recent study on Io's volcanism. "In this scenario, portions of cool crust sink, exposing the incandescent magma underneath and causing a brightening in the infrared."

Flares of infrared light were rampant on Loki Patera for the ten seconds it was obscured by Europa. The overflow of data meant the research team was able to piece together a thermal map of the behemoth lava lake, which might be the most stunning thing you’ve ever seen in 2D.

Loki Patera as seen in the infrared. The lighter the shade of burning orange, the newer the lava. 

Loki is even more fiery than that. There is a volcanic island in the middle of all that chaos, which the team used to assess magma overturn (the rate at which new magma breaks the surface). This devil’s island divides Loki Patera down the middle, with magma on each side gushing to the surface at a different velocity. De Kleer believes that this indicates a difference in the magma’s chemical composition or the dissolved gas that bubbles throughout it, as well some of the magma flow being set off at slightly different times by some force that is still unknown.

So when will Europa next be in transit of Io so Space-Mordor can have its next closeup? The moons will next align in 2021. Future observations are bound to be explosive.

(via Popular Mechanics)