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New Research Says Lava-frost Interaction Forms Dunes on Moon Io

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New research from Rutgers University suggests that the dominating dune terrain on the volcanic moon of Jupiter, Io, is the result of interaction between lava and frost.

Io is Jupiter’s third-largest moon and the solar system’s most volcanically active body. Because Jupiter’s gravity pulls on Io, it generates internal heat that propels eruptions onto the surface, resulting in widespread volcanic activity.

Io’s frozen surface exhibits meandering characteristics that are akin to dunes and ridges on Earth and Mars, in addition to a rough volcanic landscape.

According to a recent study released by George McDonald (Rutgers University) and colleagues, Io’s dune-like topography is most likely the result of lava and frost interaction.

Dunes are sandhills formed by aeolian (wind-driven) processes. The low-density atmosphere of Io, on the other hand, results in minimal winds, implying that these dunes are molded by some other aerial force.

Similar forces occur on Earth when molten rock collides with water, resulting in enormous steam explosions. Despite the lack of water on Io, McDonald and his crew took into account the widespread occurrence of sulfur dioxide frost.

They believe that slow-moving lava beneath a layer of frost creates thick and fast-moving jets of vapor capable of transporting grains and forming enormous dune-like landforms on the moon’s surface.

Saltation is the term for this procedure. The jets are powerful enough, according to the researchers, to move grains with diameters ranging from 20 micrometers to one centimeter and construct dunes up to 30 meters tall.

Images from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft back up their findings, revealing that the size of Io’s dunes is consistent with those seen on Earth and other worlds.

Indeed, dune-like characteristics have been discovered on the comet 67P and Pluto, both of which lack dense atmospheres. The work done by McDonald and his team adds Io to a growing list of planets with thin atmospheres where aeolian sediment transport may be a key factor in how the landscape changes over time.

Image Credit: Getty

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