A lava-filled crater larger than Lake Ontario lurks on Jupiter's moon Io

If you happen to find yourself on Jupiter’s moon Io, you could be in for some trouble. 

The moon is thought to be the most volcanic place in the solar system, with hundreds of volcanoes dotting its surface and lava spewing all over the moon. 

And now, scientists think they’ve spotted waves of lava moving through a huge crater on Io.

Observations taken in 2015 but published this week in the journal Nature show what appear to be waves of lava moving through Io’s Loki Patera, a 200-kilometer-wide volcanic crater.

Researchers think they’ve spotted two waves of lava moving from west to east in the crater. 

Both waves — which appeared on two sides of a cooler island in the crater — moved about 1 kilometer per day and might be responsible for periodic brightening of the spot as seen by scientists studying Io since the 1970s. 

All in all, the hot spot in the crater actually has a surface area that makes it larger than Lake Ontario, according to a press release from the University of California at Berkeley. 

“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,” Katherine de Kleer, an author of the study, said in the statement. “In this scenario, portions of cool crust sink, exposing the incandescent magma underneath and causing a brightening in the infrared.”

Researchers still aren’t exactly sure if the dimming and brightening seen at Loki Patera are from eruptions or overturning waves of lava flowing across the crater, but findings like these are starting to paint a more complete picture of the moon as a whole.

Unfortunately, these kinds of observations are only possible every once in awhile. 

Io as seen by the Galileo spacecraft.

Io as seen by the Galileo spacecraft.

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The scientists who conducted this study were only able to gather data because Europa, another one of Jupiter’s moons, eclipsed Io from Earth’s perspective. 

This might sound like the kind of thing that would make it more difficult to study Io, but in reality, it provided a special opportunity for scientists keeping a sharp eye on the Jovian moons. 

Europa is actually covered in ice, meaning it doesn’t reflect a lot of sun, so as it passed in front of Io, scientists were able to measure exactly how much heat Io’s volcanoes were giving off at that time, allowing the researchers to make this pretty cool observation, Berkeley said.

Scientists will get another chance to see this kind of cosmic alignment (and make more observations like these) in 2021, when Europa passes in front of Io again.

Spacecraft flying through the solar system have also observed Io before. 

NASA’s New Horizons mission, for example, happened to catch sight of a volcanic eruption on Io as it flew past on its way to Pluto. 

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were responsible for pinning down the fact that Io’s occasionally changing brightness is caused by volcanism for the first time. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft also observed the moon during its 1990s mission to Jupiter. 

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