Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society

The most volcanically active place is out-of-this-world!

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

Volcanoes are some of the most powerful and destructive natural phenomena, yet they're a vital part of shaping the planetary landscape of worlds small and large. Here on Earth, the largest of the rocky bodies in our Solar System, there's a tremendous source of heat coming from our planet's interior, from a mix of gravitational contraction and heavy, radioactive elements decaying. Our planet consistently outputs a tremendous amount of energy from this process, nearly three times the global power production from all sources of fuel. Because the surface-area-to-mass ratio of our planet (like all large rocky worlds) is small, that energy has a hard time escaping, building-up and releasing sporadically in catastrophic events: volcanoes and earthquakes!

Io. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech, via the Galileo spacecraft. Download photo here.

Yet volcanoes occur on worlds that you might never expect, like the tiny moon Io, orbiting Jupiter. With just 1.5% the mass of Earth despite being more than one quarter of the Earth's diameter, Io seems like an unlikely candidate for volcanoes, as 4.5 billion years is more than enough time for it to have cooled and become stable. Yet Io is anything but stable, as an abundance of volcanic eruptions were predicted before we ever got a chance to view it up close. When the Voyager 1 spacecraft visited, it found no impact craters on Io, but instead hundreds of volcanic calderas, including actual eruptions with plumes 300 kilometers high! Subsequently, Voyager 2, Galileo, and a myriad of telescope observations found that these eruptions change rapidly on Io's surface.

Where does the energy for all this come from? From the combined tidal forces exerted by Jupiter and the outer Jovian moons. On Earth, the gravity from the Sun and Moon causes the ocean tides to raise-and-lower by one-to-two meters, on average, far too small to cause any heating. Io has no oceans, yet the tidal forces acting on it cause the world itself to stretch and bend by an astonishing 100 meters at a time! This causes not only cracking and fissures, but also heats up the interior of the planet, the same way that rapidly bending a piece of metal back-and-forth causes it to heat up internally. When a path to the surface opens up, that internal heat escapes through quiescent lava flows and catastrophic volcanic eruptions! The hottest spots on Io's surface reach 1,200 °C (2,000 °F); compared to the average surface temperature of 110 Kelvin (-163 °C / -261 °F), Io is home to the most extreme temperature differences from location-to-location outside of the Sun.

Just by orbiting where it does, Io gets distorted, heats up, and erupts, making it the most volcanically active world in the entire Solar System! Other moons around gas giants have spectacular eruptions, too (like Enceladus around Saturn), but no world has its surface shaped by volcanic activity quite like Jupiter's innermost moon, Io!