Jupiter’s moons are undoubtedly among the coolest places in the solar system, not to be political or anything. Europa and Ganymede, two of its biggest moons, are expected to have subterranean seas, making them appealing places to hunt for life. While possibly livable seas may pique our interest, Jupiter’s innermost moon IO is no slouch, either.
It’s a world rife with the strong volcanic activity that interacts with its host planet in unusual ways. Scientists believe that these eruptions, which are the consequence of Jupiter’s enormous gravitational energy exerted on its moon, may have aided in the creation of Jupiter’s spectacular auroral light displays. And now, new research reveals another unique relationship between IO and Jupiter, as IO passes into Jupiter’s shadow, its atmosphere collapses, and scientists have recently witnessed this for the first time.
What Do Scientists Think?
Scientists previously knew that IO’s hold on its atmosphere was shaky at best and that it may be lost to space and rebuilt by volcanic activity on a regular basis. The mainly sulfur-dioxide atmosphere has a surface pressure of one billionth of that at sea level on Earth.
That sulfur-dioxide gas cools and falls to the surface, hardening into a solid, every time Jupiter passes between IO and the sun, dropping the moon into chilly darkness. Every day on IO, the atmosphere collapses and is held as surface ice for around two hours (which equates to 1.7 Earth days). After two hours, the atmosphere is reborn: the sun’s warmth throws itself once more upon IO’s surface, forcing the freshly produced frost to sublimate or heat from a solid to a gas.
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IO is being stretched and compressed as it circles Jupiter, resulting in volcanic activity. During this process, IO’s rock surface bulges up and down by up to 100 meters (328 ft). This has an effect on IO’s volcanic activity in the same way that the moon has an effect on Earth’s waters.
Scientists think there is a significant amount of rock near the surface of the ice. Jupiter’s vast magnetosphere contains Ganymede’s magnetic field. In 1996, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered evidence of a tiny oxygen atmosphere on Ganymede. Life as we know it would be impossible to sustain in such a thin atmosphere.
Although IO’s orbit around Jupiter always points the same way toward Jupiter, the huge moons Europa and Ganymede cause Io’s orbit to become irregularly elliptical. As a result, IO is subjected to immense tidal forces depending on its distance from Jupiter.