A simulation of Io transiting Jupiter as seen from the Earth. Io’s shadow is seen on the surface of Jupiter, leading Io slightly due to the sun and Earth not being in the same line.

A simulation of Io transiting Jupiter as seen from the Earth. Io’s shadow is seen on the surface of Jupiter, leading Io slightly due to the sun and Earth not being in the same line.

Io

Looking like a giant pizza covered with melted cheese and splotches of tomato and ripe olives, Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Volcanic plumes rise 300 km (190 miles) above the surface, with material spewing out at nearly half the required escape velocity.

A bit larger than Earth’s Moon, Io is the third largest of Jupiter’s moons, and the fifth one in distance from the planet.

Although Io always points the same side toward Jupiter in its orbit around the giant planet, the large moons Europa and Ganymede perturb Io’s orbit into an irregularly elliptical one. Thus, in its widely varying distances from Jupiter, Io is subjected to tremendous tidal forces. These forces cause Io’s surface to bulge up and down (or in and out) by as much as 100 m (330 feet)! Compare these tides on Io’s solid surface to the tides on Earth’s oceans. On Earth, in the place where tides are highest, the difference between low and high tides is only 18 m (60 feet), and this is for water, not solid ground!

This tidal pumping generates a tremendous amount of heat within Io, keeping much of its subsurface crust in liquid form seeking any available escape route to the surface to relieve the pressure. Thus, the surface of Io is constantly renewing itself, filling in any impact craters with molten lava lakes and spreading smooth new floodplains of liquid rock. The composition of this material is not yet entirely clear, but theories suggest that it is largely molten sulfur and its compounds (which would account for the varigated coloring) or silicate rock (which would better account for the apparent temperatures, which may be too hot to be sulfur). Sulfur dioxide is the primary constituent of a thin atmosphere on Io. It has no water to speak of, unlike the other, colder Galilean moons. Data from the Galileo spacecraft indicates that an iron core may form Io’s center, thus giving Io its own magnetic field.

Io’s orbit, keeping it at more or less a cozy 422,000 km (262,000 miles) from Jupiter, cuts across the planet’s powerful magnetic lines of force, thus turning Io into a electric generator. Io can develop 400,000 volts across itself and create an electric current of 3 million amperes. This current takes the path of least resistance along Jupiter’s magnetic field lines to the planet’s surface, creating lightning in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

As Jupiter rotates, it takes its magnetic field around with it, sweeping past Io and stripping off about 1,000 kg (1 ton) of Io’s material every second! This material becomes ionized in the magnetic field and forms a doughnut-shaped cloud of intense radiation referred to as a plasma torus. Some of the ions are pulled into Jupiter’s atmosphere along the magnetic lines of force and create auroras in the planet’s upper atmosphere. It is the ions escaping from this torus that inflate Jupiter’s magnetosphere to over twice the size we would expect.

Discovery:
Io was discovered on 8 January 1610 by Galileo Galilei. The discovery, along with three other Jovian moons, was the first time a moon was discovered orbiting a planet other than Earth. The discovery of the four Galilean satellites eventually led to the understanding that planets in our solar system orbit the sun, instead of our solar system revolving around Earth. Galileo apparently had observed Io on 7 January 1610, but had been unable to differentiate between Io and Europa until the next night.

How Io Got its Name:
Galileo originally called Jupiter’s moons the Medicean planets, after the Medici family and referred to the individual moons numerically as I, II, III, and IV. Galileo’s naming system would be used for a couple of centuries.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-1800s that the names of the Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, would be officially adopted, and only after it became apparent that naming moons by number would be very confusing as new additional moons were being discovered.

Io was originally designated Jupiter I by Galileo because it is the first satellite of Jupiter. Io is named for the daughter of Inachus, who was raped by Jupiter. Jupiter, in an effort to hide his crime from his wife, Juno, transformed Io into a heifer.

Credit: NASA/JPL

A Jupiter-Io montage from New Horizons
As the New Horizons spacecraft sweeps through the Solar System, it is taking breathtaking images of the planets. In February 2008, New Horizons passed Jupiter and the ever-active Jovian moon Io. In this montage, Jupiter was captured in three bands of infrared light making the Great Red Spot look white. Complex hurricane-like ovals, swirls, and planet-ringing bands are visible in Jupiter’s complex atmosphere. Io is digitally superposed in natural color. Fortuitously, a plume was emanating from Io’s volcano Tvashtar. Frost and sulfuric lava cover the volcanic moon, while red-glowing lava is visible beneath the blue sunlight-scattering plume. The robotic New Horizons spacecraft is on track to arrive at Pluto in 2015.
Image credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins U. APL, SWRI

A Jupiter-Io montage from New Horizons

As the New Horizons spacecraft sweeps through the Solar System, it is taking breathtaking images of the planets. In February 2008, New Horizons passed Jupiter and the ever-active Jovian moon Io. In this montage, Jupiter was captured in three bands of infrared light making the Great Red Spot look white. Complex hurricane-like ovals, swirls, and planet-ringing bands are visible in Jupiter’s complex atmosphere. Io is digitally superposed in natural color. Fortuitously, a plume was emanating from Io’s volcano Tvashtar. Frost and sulfuric lava cover the volcanic moon, while red-glowing lava is visible beneath the blue sunlight-scattering plume. The robotic New Horizons spacecraft is on track to arrive at Pluto in 2015.

Image credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins U. APL, SWRI

Voyager 1 captured this mosaic on Io on March 4, 1979, as a nearly full-phase Io appeared to travel across Jupiter’s terminator. Viewed near the edge of its disk and at local dusk, only the uppermost blue hazes of Jupiter’s atmosphere are visible.
Io and Jupiter from Voyager 1
The mosaic, which consists of four clear-filter images followed by violet, blue, orange, and green frames, is a great challenge to assemble because in the 11 minutes it took Voyager to record and transmit the 6 images (from 22:36:35 to 22:47:48) Io completely transited the terminator, and because the color frames are not complete, with pieces of Io cut off. Source images can be downloaded here.
Credit: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk

Voyager 1 captured this mosaic on Io on March 4, 1979, as a nearly full-phase Io appeared to travel across Jupiter’s terminator. Viewed near the edge of its disk and at local dusk, only the uppermost blue hazes of Jupiter’s atmosphere are visible.

Io and Jupiter from Voyager 1

The mosaic, which consists of four clear-filter images followed by violet, blue, orange, and green frames, is a great challenge to assemble because in the 11 minutes it took Voyager to record and transmit the 6 images (from 22:36:35 to 22:47:48) Io completely transited the terminator, and because the color frames are not complete, with pieces of Io cut off. Source images can be downloaded here.

Credit: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk

Io Transit of Jupiter


A simulation of Io transiting Jupiter as seen from the Earth. Io’s shadow is seen on the surface of Jupiter, leading Io slightly due to the sun and Earth not being in the same line.