Scientists capture stunning new images of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io

Jupiter moon Io, imaged by SHARK-VIS on Jan. 10, 2024. Credit: INAF/Large Binocular Telescope Observatory/Georgia State University; IRV-band observations by SHARK-VIS/F. Pedichini; processing by D. Hope, S. Jefferies, G. Li Causi.

Scientists have recently captured the most detailed Earth-based images ever taken of Jupiter’s moon Io, thanks to the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mount Graham in Arizona.

These images, which will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, show surface features as small as 50 miles across, a resolution previously achievable only by spacecraft.

The breakthrough was made possible by a new high-contrast optical imaging instrument called SHARK-VIS, combined with the telescope’s adaptive optics system.

This system helps counteract the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere, providing crystal-clear images. The research team likened this achievement to photographing a dime from 100 miles away.

SHARK-VIS allowed the researchers to observe a significant volcanic resurfacing event around Pele, one of Io’s most active volcanoes.

Al Conrad, the paper’s first author and associate staff scientist at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, explained that Io’s volcanic eruptions are much more massive than those on Earth.

“Io offers a unique chance to learn about the powerful eruptions that shaped Earth and the moon in ancient times,” said Conrad.

The Large Binocular Telescope, part of the University of Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory, played a crucial role in this discovery.

Conrad emphasized that studies like this help scientists understand why some planets and moons are volcanic while others are not. This knowledge might also help us learn about volcanic worlds in other solar systems.

Io, slightly larger than Earth’s moon, is the innermost of Jupiter’s four large moons, which also include Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

Due to its gravitational interactions with Jupiter and the other moons, Io experiences intense internal friction, generating heat that fuels its constant volcanic activity.

By studying Io’s eruptions, scientists aim to understand the movement of material beneath its surface, its internal structure, and the tidal heating process responsible for its volcanism.

Io’s volcanic activity was first discovered in 1979 by NASA’s Voyager mission, which captured an eruption plume in one of its images. Since then, both space and Earth-based telescopes have continuously observed Io’s dynamic nature.

The new images taken by SHARK-VIS on January 10, 2024, show Io with remarkable clarity. The image combines infrared, red, and yellow light to highlight a reddish ring around the Pele volcano and a white ring around the nearby Pillan Patera volcano.

According to Ashley Davies, a principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the new images reveal that recent eruptions at Pillan Patera are covering the plume deposits from Pele.

“We interpret the changes as dark lava and white sulfur dioxide deposits from Pillan Patera’s eruption, partially covering Pele’s red, sulfur-rich plume deposit,” Davies explained. “Before SHARK-VIS, observing such events from Earth was impossible.”

Co-author Imke de Pater, professor emerita of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, added that while infrared images can detect volcanic hot spots, they are not sharp enough to show surface details and pinpoint eruption locations. SHARK-VIS’s visible light images provide the necessary clarity to identify eruption sites and new deposits on Io’s surface.

SHARK-VIS was developed by the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics and installed at the LBT in 2023. The instrument’s advanced camera captures rapid images, allowing researchers to correct atmospheric distortions and achieve unprecedented sharpness.

Data processing manager Gianluca Li Causi explained that the team uses a software package called Kraken to combine the best image frames and remove atmospheric effects.

SHARK-VIS instrument scientist Simone Antoniucci is excited about future observations. “The sharp vision of SHARK-VIS is perfect for studying the surfaces of many solar system bodies, including moons and asteroids,” Antoniucci said. “We’ve already observed some and plan to study more.”

This remarkable achievement not only enhances our understanding of Io but also opens new possibilities for studying other celestial bodies in our solar system.

Source: University of Arizona.