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Jupiter moon spouts "curtains of fire" in crazed series of eruptions

August 6, 2014 3:12 AM
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“We typ­ic­ally ex­pect one huge out­burst eve­ry one or two years, and they’re usu­ally not this bright,” said Imke de Pa­ter, chair of as­tron­o­my at the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, and lead au­thor of one of two pa­pe­rs de­scrib­ing the erup­tions.

“Here we had three ex­tremely bright out­bursts, which sug­gest that if we looked more fre­quently we might see many more of them on Io.”

Io (pro­nounced ee-o or eye-o) is about the size of Earth’s moon and the most vol­can­ic­ally ac­tive plan­et or moon in our so­lar sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to as­tro­no­mers. It’s al­so the only one with vol­ca­noes erupt­ing ex­tremely hot la­va like that seen on Earth. Be­cause of Io’s low gra­vity, large erup­tions blast an um­brel­la of de­bris high in­to space.

De Pa­ter’s long-time col­league and coau­thor Ash­ley Da­vies, a vol­can­ol­o­gist with NASA’s Je­t Pro­pul­sion Lab­o­r­a­to­ry at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy in Pas­a­de­na, Calif., said the re­cent erup­tions match past events that spewed la­va over hun­dreds of square miles in a short time.

“These new events are in a rel­a­tively rare class of erup­tions on Io be­cause of their size and as­ton­ish­ingly high ther­mal [heat] emis­sion,” he said. “The amount of en­er­gy be­ing emit­ted by these erup­tions im­plies la­va foun­tains gush­ing out of fis­sures at a very large vol­ume per sec­ond, form­ing la­va flows that quickly spread over the sur­face of Io.”

All three events, in­clud­ing the larg­est, most pow­er­ful erup­tion of the tri­o on Aug. 29, were likely char­ac­ter­ized by “cur­tains of fire,” as la­va blast­ed out of fis­sures pe­rhaps sev­er­al miles or kilo­meters long, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists. The pa­pe­rs have been ac­cept­ed for pub­lica­t­ion in the research jour­nal Ic­a­rus.


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