Periodic volcanism on Io

Hi there! Today’s post addresses the volcanic activity of Io, you know, this very active large satellite of Jupiter. It appears from long-term observations that this activity is somehow periodic. This is not truly a new result, but the study I present you enriches the database of observations to refine the measurement of the relevant period. This study is entitled Three decades of Loki Patera observations, by I. de Pater, K. de Kleer, A.G. Davies and M. Ádámkovics, and has been recently accepted for publication in Icarus.

Io’s facts

Io is one the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. it was discovered in 1610 by Galileo Galilei, when he pointed its telescope to Jupiter. It is the innermost of them, with a semimajor axis of 422,000 km, and a orbital period of 1 day and 18 hours. Its mean radius is 1,822 km.

Io has been visited by the spacecrafts Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Galileo, Cassini and New Horizons, Galileo being the only one of these missions to have orbited Jupiter. The first images of the surface of Io are due to Voyager 1. As most of the natural satellites in our Solar System, it rotates synchronously, permanently showing the same face to a fictitious jovian observer.

Its orbital dynamics in interesting, since it is locked in a 1:2:4 three-body mean motion resonance (MMR), with Europa and Ganymede. This means that during 4 orbits of Ganymede, Europa makes exactly two, and Io 4. While two-body MMR are ubiquitous in the Solar System, this is the only known occurrence of a three-body MMR, which is favored by the significant masses of these three bodies.

Three full disk views of Io, taken by Galileo in June 1996. Loki Patera is the small black spot appearing in the northern hemisphere of the central image. The large red spot on the right is Pele. Credit: NASA.

Such a resonance is supposed to raise the orbital eccentricity, elongating the orbit. Nevertheless, it appears that the eccentricity of Io is small, i.e. 0.0041, on average. How can this be possible? Because there is a huge dissipation of energy in Io.

Volcanoes on Io

This energy dissipation appears as many volcanoes, which activities can now be monitored from the Earth. When active, they appear as hot spots on infrared images. More than 150 volcanoes have been identified so far, among them are Loki, Pele, Prometheus, Tvashtar…

This dissipation has been anticipated by the late Stanton J. Peale, who compared the expected eccentricity from the MMR with Europa and Ganymede with the measured one. This way, he predicted dissipation in Io a few days before the arrival of Voyager 1, which detected plumes. This discovery is narrated in the following video (credit: David Rothery).

Dissipation induces geological activity, which another signature is tectonics. Tectonics create mountains, and actually Io has some, with a maximum height of 17.5 km.

But back to the volcanoes. We are here interested in Loki. The Loki volcano is the source of Loki Patera, which is a 200-km diameter lava lake. This feature appears to be actually very active, representing 9% of the apparent energy dissipation of Io.

The observation facilities

This study uses about 30 years of observations, from

  • the Keck Telescopes: these are two 10-m telescopes, which constitute the W.M. Keck Observatory, based on the Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This study enriches the database of observations thanks to Keck data taken between 1998 and 2016.
  • Gemini: the Gemini Observatory is constituted of two 8.19-m telescopes, Gemini North and Gemini South, which are based in Hawaii and in Chile, respectively.
  • Galileo NIMS: the Galileo spacecraft was a space mission which was sent in 1989 to Jupiter. It has been inserted into orbit in December 1995 and has been deorbited in 2003. NIMS was the Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer.
  • the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO): this is a 2.3-m infrared telescope operating since 1977 on Jelm Mountain, Wyoming.
  • the Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF): this is a 3-m infrared telescope based on the Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
  • the European Southern Observatory (ESO) La Silla Observatory: a 3.6-m telescope based in Chile.

All of these facilities permit infrared observations, i.e. to observe the heat. In this study, the most relevant observations have wavelengths between 3.5 and 3.8 μm. Some of these observations benefited from adaptive optics, which somehow compensates the atmospheric distortion.


And here are the results:


The authors notice a periodicity in the activity of Loki Patera. More particularly, they find a period between 420 and 480 days between 2009 and 2016, while a period of about 540 days was estimated for the activity before 2002. Moreover, Loki Patera appears to have been pretty inactive between 2002 and 2009, and the propagation direction of the eruptions seems to have reversed from one of these periods of activity to the other one.


The authors show variations of temperature of the Loki Patera, in estimating it from the infrared photometry, assuming the surface to be a black body, i.e. which emission would only depend on its temperature. They analyzed in particular a brightening event, which occurred in 1999. They showed that it consisted in the emergence of hot magma, at a temperature of 600 K.
On the whole dataset, temperatures up to 1,475 K have been observed, which correspond to the melting temperature of basalt.

Resurfacing rate

This production of magma renews the surface. The observations of such events by different authors suggest a resurfacing rate between 1,160 and 2,100 m2/s, while the surface of Loki Patera is about 21,500 km2, which means that the surface can be renewed in between 118 and 215 days. At this rate, we would be very lucky to observe impact craters on Io… we actually observe none.

A perspective

The authors briefly mention the variation of activity of Pele, Gilbil, Janus Patera, and Kanehekili Fluctus. The intensity of the events affecting Loki Patera makes it easier to study, but similar studies on the other volcanoes would probably permit a better understanding of the phenomenon. They would reveal in particular whether the cause is local or global, i.e. whether the same periods can be detected for other volcanoes, or not.

To know more

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