Io Has Been Volcanically Active for its Entire History

Jupiter’s moon Io is a volcanic powerhouse. It’s the most geologically active world in the Solar System, sporting more than 400 spouting volcanoes and vents on its surface. Has it always been this way? A team of planetary scientists says yes, and they have the chemical receipts to prove it.

In a recent paper, the team headed by CalTech scientist Katherine de Kleer cites data from millimeter observations of elemental isotopes found in Io’s eruptions. They found that chemicals like chlorine and sulfur exist in higher quantities at Io than in comparable places in the Solar System. Analysis shows that Io hasn’t just started erupting lately—it’s been going on for most of its history. And, it’s so volcanic that it practically resurfaces itself every million years or so.

The discovery of volcanism on Io was one of the major results of the Voyager mission. As the two spacecraft swept past Jupiter in 1979, their images revealed Io’s volcanic features and plumes. Since that time, the Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, New Horizons, and Juno missions also sent images. The Jovian system and its moons are also frequent targets for ground- and space-based observatories, including Hubble Space Telescope and JWST.

Facts about Io

Io is the fourth-largest Jovian moon and is one of the four Galilean satellites. It orbits closest to Jupiter and gets pulled by a gravitational tug-of-war between Jupiter and the other Galilean moons. The result is a process called “tidal heating” deep inside Io, produced by friction. That generates heat, which melts Io’s interior, and opens up vents so that the heat and melted material can escape to the surface.

An artist's concept of the interior of Io. By Kelvinsong - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
An artist’s concept of the interior of Io. By Kelvinsong – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This little moon is mostly silicate rock atop an iron or iron sulfide core. The surface is scarred with volcanoes and deformed by compressional forces beneath the crust. The most obvious features are the volcanic mountains, plumes, and lava flows. Currently, Io’s volcanoes resurface the landscape at a rate of about 0.1 to 1.0 cm per year. They also paint its surface in an amazing array of colors. During the Voyager 2 flyby, people often compared its appearance to a pizza. The colors come mainly from sulfur and sulfurous compounds deposited across the landscape.

Normally, geologists would look at its surface and count craters to get an idea of its age. But, since volcanic flows erase craters, there’s no easy visual way to determine how long volcanic features have been around. However, it turns out that abundances of certain isotopes of sulfur and other elements could provide a good record the history of volcanism on Io.

Analyzing Io’s Chemistry

Io has probably lost mass to space throughout its history. de Kleer and her colleagues point out that its supply of volatile elements should be highly enriched in heavy stable isotopes. That’s because atmospheric escape processes generally favor the loss of lighter isotopes. They suggest that stable isotope measurements of volatile elements, such as sulfur and chlorine, could give accurate details about the history of volcanism at Io. So, it makes sense, then, to do a thorough chemical analysis of Io’s volcanic emissions now and extrapolate back.

Understanding Io’s current chemistry, requires, among other things, a good idea of its mass-loss history. Io’s mass loss occurs because of collisions between atmospheric molecules and energetic particles trapped in Jupiter’s magnetosphere. If this continued over Io’s history, then its chemistry should provide evidence of the volcanic past. In their paper, the team discusses the assumptions they made, including estimates of Io’s initial inventory of sulfur, as well as possible early mass-loss rates that could affect its current abundances of sulfur and chlorine—two elements that help determine past and present volcanism.

To get that history, team used the Atacama Large Millimeter Array to observe gases in Io’s atmosphere. The goal was to measure SO2, SO, NaCl, and KCl in various forms and determine the ratios of 34S to 32S and 37Cl to 35Cl. After analyzing the data, the team found that Io has lost at least 94 to 99 percent of its available sulfur over time. In addition, the measurements show enriched levels of chlorine. This probably indicates that Io has been volcanically active throughout time. It’s also possible that this tiny moon has experienced higher rates of outgassing and mass loss early in its history. More measurements should help scientists constrain Io’s volcanic activity even more tightly.

For More Information

Isotopic Evidence of Long-lived Volcanism on Io
Violent Volcanoes Have Wracked Jupiter’s Moon Io for Billions of Years