Jupiter’s moon Io: some facts

His Name In Lights is set on Jupiter’s moon Io, which has captured my interest for some time. I have at least one other Io story in the making. Expect an announcement about A Perfect Day Off The Farm fairly soon. In that story, I explain the concept of stick farms, which is something that would actually work.

Both stories are covered in the story collection New Horizons.

Io is a body slightly bigger than Earth’s Moon which orbits Jupiter at roughly the same distance as the Moon orbits Earth. It is the closest of the larger moons of that planet. Jupiter, of course, is much, much bigger than Earth, and this has all sorts of consequences for its neighbourhood.

Io was discovered in 1610 by Galileo when he was looking at Jupiter and noticed three little dots close to it. Moreover, the dots were placed in a straight line (that’s a dead giveaway for a planetary or any kind of system that involves things orbiting each other), and on top of that, the next day, the dots were in different positions. The discovery of the four Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – the god Jupiter’s lovers in ancient mythology), proved Galileo’s hypothesis that other planet-moon systems existed and that, by extrapolation, the Earth was not the centre of the universe, nor the centre of the solar system.

You can see Jupiter and its dancing dots with a decent set of binoculars in the night sky. Because Jupiter is so large and has so much gravity, the moons race around the planet like bats out of hell, and their positions are visibly different every day.

Being the closest moon, Io orbits Jupiter every 42 hours. Since the circle it describes is the same size as the Moon’s orbit around Earth, it means it’s moving at a speed of over 17 kilometres per second. By comparison, the Moon moves at a speed of one kilometre a second. This thing is racing!

The same applies for the other three moons, Europa (3.5 days), Ganymede (7.15 days) and Callisto (16 days). All move at comparatively high speed, which is why they’re so much fun to observe. You can see them move.

The moons’ gravities also interact with each other, since all of them are roughly the size of our Moon and quite close together, astronomically speaking. They have developed a pattern of orbital resonance, where Io will orbit exactly twice within one orbit of Europa, and Europa will orbit twice with each orbit described by Ganymede. Which also means that Io will orbit exactly four times for one orbit of Ganymede. Callisto is the odd one out and isn’t playing this game.

This orbital resonance means that the three moons will frequently line up in a straight path and will be at cross-angles to each other at other times. This means that there are huge tidal forces exerted on each of those moons, but especially on poor little Io.

When telescopes became good enough to observe very fuzzy details of the surface, scientists thought at first that there were two moons. Sections of the surface are highly reflective, and later pictures of the moon show a kaleidoscope of colours in yellows, greens and reds, leading to the nickname ‘pizzaface’.

We now know that Io is made primarily of sulphur and silicates (aka ‘rock’). The atmosphere is very thin and patchy and when present consists of sulphur dioxide. There is no water at all, in contrast to the other three Galilean moons, which have significant percentages of water on their surface. It is thought that radiation from Jupiter has evaporated any water present on the surface.

Because of the huge tidal forces, Io is the most volcanic body in our solar system. On Earth, we think of tides as something that affects water, but that is just because water can easily move, so we notice the effect. Rock can’t move, so it gets hot in response to tidal forces. This is why the interior of Io consists of molten rock.

Geologists on Earth define an active volcano as one that has been known to exhibit activity within the last 400 years. Under that definition, every single feature on the 400-long list of mountains, depressions and rifts on Io is an active volcano.

In fact, the moon is so volcanic that there are no impact craters, like we can see on the Moon or Mars. That’s not because nothing’s ever hit Io, but because the evidence gets covered up pretty quickly. Essentially, Io is continuously being turned inside-out by its own fart-holes.

The spread of volcanic ash across the surface of Io amounts to an average of 1cm per year. At a geological scale, that’s massive.

It also means that any robotic craft or permanent fixture you were to put on the surface would need some sort of mechanism to keep itself un-buried from this material. To make matters worse, it’s most sulphur as well as Sodium and other elements that are Not Conducive to effective mechanical operation of equipment.

Mountains on Io are up to 8 kilometres in height. Some are volcanoes, but many are not, at least not at the top. The volcanic outlets are more likely to be at the bottom of the mountain.

Why? Well, imagine a layer of ice floating on water. Now pile ice chips on, and more ice chips and more ice chips… and eventually the layer of ice will start to protest, to buckle and twist and break, sink in one place and tilt upwards at another. Ah! Now we have mountains. The logic then also dictates that the breaks (= places where magma can rise to the surface) are next to the mountains.

What else would be special about Io?

The day on Io is 42 hours, the same as its orbital period. Because the moon is tidally locked with Jupiter, like our Moon, it always shows the same side to the planet. Which in turn means that a day on the moon is the same length as one orbit around the planet. On Io, however, this has an interesting complication.

As it races around Jupiter, Io experiences an eclipse every day when it goes into the shadow of Jupiter. The eclipse lasts 2.5 hours and in that dark time it gets so cold that the pathetic cover of sulphur dioxide that passes for atmosphere condensates on the surface as snow, only to sublimate again when the sun returns.

In fact, it is highly likely that the time of the eclipse is the darkest time of day on Io. At night, the Jupiter-facing (subjovian) side would have Jupiter in the night sky. To be honest, Jupiter will take up a very significant portion of the night sky. Think of the light it would reflect back to Io.

This only applies for the side that always faces Jupiter, though. On the other side, you would never see the planet, but you probably get some interesting views of the other moons.

No discussion about Io is complete without mentioning radiation. Every celestial body that has a magnetic field has Van Allen radiation belts. A magnetic field traps particles, either from the solar wind or cosmic radiation, in a donut-shaped torus around the planet. Crossing those belts at between 1000 and 60,000km from the Earth was one of the main concerns for the Moon astronauts. At about 370km, the International Space Station stays well clear of them.

Io orbits–you guessed it–smack bang in the middle of Jupiter’s Van Allen belt. Jupiter is the second-most magnetic object in the solar system (after the Sun). Io helps the particle soup along a bit by constantly spewing volcanic stuff into space.

All this amounts to a massive radiation load. So much that if you were to step onto the surface unprotected, you’d be dead in minutes. Radiation would also affect the operation of any robotic equipment you’d send there.

So, as you can see, there are serious challenges to doing anything on Io, and a lot of places in the solar system that are easier to visit. But Io is also one of the most interesting places in the solar system.

Reference: Io After Galileo, A New View of Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon. Rosaly M.C. Lopes and John R. Spencer (2006). Springer. 366pp. ISBN 978-3540346814.

Be warned, this book is pretty darn expensive. For those with a more casual interest, Io’s Wikipedia page has an extensive list of scientific references, some of which can be read or downloaded for free online. If you are interested in buying this book, you can get a copy here: Io After Galileo: A New View of Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon (Springer Praxis Books / Geophysical Sciences)

Patty writes hard Science Fiction, space opera and fantasy. If you’d like to be kept up-to-date with new releases, remember to sign up for Patty’s newsletter. You get four books free.

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