By ANN McCREARY
A researcher affiliated with Bear Fight Institute, a NASA-funded planetary science center in the hills above Winthrop, has led a team of researchers in a recently published study about volcanic activity on Io, a moon of Jupiter.
Glenn Veeder said Io caught researchers’ attention because infrared images and other data collected by ground-based telescopes and NASA spacecraft showed “it is unbelievably hot.”
Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Approximately the same size as Earth’s moon, Io is covered by about 400 enormous volcanoes, Veeder said. “The smallest one we can detect on Io is larger that the largest on earth,” he said.
The surface of Io also has huge lakes of molten lava, the largest being about the size of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Io is intriguing in part because it may provide clues about Earth’s formation, said Veeder in a phone interview from California, where he works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“One early touch point was that what’s going on on Io might be very similar to what happened in the extremely early earth, right after it was formed. The surface was still hot. It was not a very happy place to be,” Veeder said.
Massive volcanic structures called traps, many millions of years old, have been identified in Siberia and off the coast of India, Veeder said. “The third-biggest is in Oregon,” he said.
Fully understanding Earth’s early days is difficult because much of the evidence of the earth’s volcanic past is buried in sediment, Veeder said. “Meanwhile, you can see on Io how things go when things are really cooking.”
Io is heated up by friction generated within Io’s interior as it is pulled between Jupiter and Europa, another moon of Jupiter. “Squeeze a piece of putty or silly dough and it gets warm,” Veeder said. That same heating effect takes place when objects like Io are put under tremendous gravitational forces.
The study of Io’s volcanic activity was published in the June issue of the journal Icarus. Researchers examined data from NASA’s Voyager and Galileo missions, and incorporated infrared data obtained from telescopes on Earth. Researchers developed a map of Io’s hot spots that shows the distribution and wide range of volcanic activity on Io. Most of Io’s eruptions dwarf their contemporaries on Earth.
“This is the most comprehensive study of Io’s volcanic thermal emission to date,” said Veeder.
The research team is still pondering a mystery that their research uncovered. Volcanoes account for only about 60 percent of Io’s heat and the scientists are trying to identify the source of the other 40 percent.
“We are investigating the possibility that there are many smaller volcanoes that are hard, but not impossible, to detect,” said Veeder.