Magazine article Science News

Volcanic Eruption on Io Breaks the Record. (Leapin' Lava!)

Magazine article Science News

Volcanic Eruption on Io Breaks the Record. (Leapin' Lava!)

Article excerpt

Within hours of erupting, the volcano shot fountains of lava high into the atmosphere and dumped molten rock over a region larger than London. The cataclysmic event, which occurred last year on Jupiter's moon Io, ranks as the most powerful volcanic eruption ever recorded in the solar system.

The enormous tidal forces exerted by Jupiter's gravity relentlessly flex Io and heat it up, making it volcanically active. The moon may experience a dozen or so massive eruptions each year. Even so, planetary scientists were surprised when one of Io's volcanoes pulled off the record-breaking eruption. The event, which took place on Feb. 22, 2001, was twice as powerful as any other eruption observed on the Jovian satellite. Researchers report their observations in the November Icarus, a planetary science journal.

Although the Galileo spacecraft has been touting Jupiter, Io, and Jupiter's three other large moons since 1995, the craft has only made short visits to Io's vicinity. So it was an Earth-based telescope, the Keck II on Hawaii's Manna Kea, that spotted the eruption. On Feb. 20, 2001, the moon appeared relatively quiet. But 2 days later, a small hot spot on the surface, near a volcano called Surt, had ballooned in size.

"We were lucky enough to detect the beginning of an outburst," says planetary scientist Imke de Pater of the University of California, Berkeley. She, her Berkeley colleague Franck Marchis, and their collaborators estimate that the heat from the eruption nearly equaled the heat emitted by all the rest of the moon's surface. …

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