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Lava Waves Sweep Across Molten Lake On Jupiter’s Moon

First Posted: May 11, 2017 05:10 AM EDT
UC Berkeley Astronomers Capture Eruption On Io
A major volcanic eruption on the surface of Jupiter's moon Io.
(Photo : Franck Marchis/UC Berkeley/Getty Images)

Jupiter's volcanic moon was recently observed to have waves of lava in its massive molten lake, Loki Patera. Io is considered to be the most volcanically active body of the solar system.

Infrared images from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory found that lava waves oscillated through Loki Patera's large, active volcanic crater. Space.com reported that swells of lava were seen spreading across the lake's surface, which explains the changes in brightness seen at the 127-mile long crater.

The "overturning lava" became the popular explanation for the brightening and dimming of Loki Patera. According to Berkeley University, astronomers first noticed Io's changing brightness in the 1970s. However, it was not until 1979 when it became clear that it was caused by volcanic eruptions, thanks to the Voyager 1 and 2 flybys.

Even with NASA's Galileo mission releasing highly detailed images of Io in the late 1990s to early 2000s, astronomers continued to debate whether the brightening was caused by overturning lava or periodic eruptions from Loki Patera. Io's volcanoes are larger than the ones that can ever be found on Earth. According to UC Berkeley graduate student Katherine de Kleer, Loki Patera encompasses an area that could be over a million times of the typical lava lake that can be found on Earth.

De Kleer explained in an interview why Io is very volcanically active. Speaking with Newsweek, she shared that the moon is powered by tidal heating. It is locked into an eccentric orbit, and the gravity it feels from Jupiter changes during the orbital period, causing friction in its interior. Such friction is said to be very strong that it can melt portions of Io's mantle, thereby generating magma.

Astronomers are still hoping for more observations of Io to confirm their findings. However, they cannot do so until 2021, when Io and Europa align once more.

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