Jupiter’s moon Io is an active body. In fact, according to NASA, it’s the most volcanically active body in the solar system, with its surface bulging up and down, almost like an amorphous blob. Hundreds of volcanoes cover the celestial body’s surface, some shooting lava up to 250 miles high.
However, there’s another geographic feature on Io that scientists are interested in: mountains.
Publishing in Nature Geoscience, William McKinnon and Michael Bland, of the Washington University in St. Louis and the United States Geological Survey Astrogeology Space Center, respectively, have delved into how the moon’s volcanoes and mountains are connected.
Unlike Earth’s sprawling mountain ranges, Io’s mountains are more individual and contained, rising from the surface in block clusters but with space between.
According to McKinnon, it was previously believed that Io’s mountains were the result of the moon’s continuously erupting volcanoes. “All that lava spewed on the surfaces pushes downward, and, as it descends, there’s a space problem because Io is a sphere, so you end up with compressive forces that increase with depth,” McKinnon said in a statement.
McKinnon and Bland tested the hypothesis using computer simulations. On Io, according to the researchers, compression increases with depth. Eventually, the stress becomes too great, and the strain results in a fault, originating deep in the lithosphere and breaking through to the surface. The result: Io’s unique mountains.
The process may further explain the relationship between the mountains and shallow depressions known as patera. “When the stress environment changes, a magma chamber can form at midlevel in the crust,” added McKinnon. “When the magma surfaces along the fault, the crust above the chamber collapses, forming the patera.”
Bland, speaking with the Christian Science Monitor, said Io’s mountain-formation technique is vastly different from Earth’s, where the geographic feature is the result of tectonic plates shifting. Bland said on Earth, the process allows the planet to cool itself. On Io, the mountains also aid the cooling process, but in a different way. According to Bland, mountain formation helps reduce stress, allowing magma flow from the crust.
“We conclude that Io’s mountains form by a unique orogenic mechanism, compared with tectonic processes operating elsewhere in the solar system,” the researchers wrote in their study.
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