NASA flies extremely close by volcano world, captures wild footage (Image Credit: Mashable)
Over the last year, the legendary Juno craft has been swooping progressively closer to Jupiter’s volcano-blanketed moon, and on Dec. 30 passed just some 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) from Io’s surface. That’s quite close — only about three times farther than the Hubble telescope orbits Earth. You can clearly see some impressive volcanoes.
To make such a near pass, Juno had to endure profoundly high levels of radiation around Jupiter — the type that could damage the spacecraft’s instruments. In 2022, for example, a radiation spike during an Io fly-by caused the loss of some images.
NASA scientists had their fingers crossed. The spacecraft, which arrived around Jupiter in 2016 following a 1,740-million-mile journey, endured.
These impressive views are processed (removing noise and distortion, etc.) by both professional and amateur image processors, some of whom work for NASA or related space research programs. These are the closest views of Io captured in over two decades. (And more images will be added as they become available.)
Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS
Io is blanketed in erupting volcanoes (there are currently 266 active hot spots on the surface) because it’s relentlessly locked in a tug-of-war between nearby objects. “Not only is the biggest planet in the solar system forever pulling at it gravitationally, but so are Io’s Galilean siblings — Europa and the biggest moon in the solar system, Ganymede,” NASA explained in a statement. “The result is that Io is continuously stretched and squeezed, actions linked to the creation of the lava seen erupting from its many volcanoes.”
In the coming years, we’ll also learn considerably more about the moon Europa, a world planetary scientists say harbors a salty sea beneath its thick, icy shell. “Europa may be the most promising place in our solar system to find present-day environments suitable for some form of life beyond Earth,” NASA explains. In 2024, NASA will launch the much-anticipated Europa Clipper spacecraft to Jupiter, where the probe will repeatedly sweep close to the moon.
For now, expect more detailed views of Io. NASA plans another “ultra-close flyby” on Feb. 3, 2024. This data may help answer big, looming questions about the volcano world. Is there a grand global sea of magma swirling beneath Io’s surface? Or, perhaps, is the lava pouring onto the moon largely created by a process more similar to Earth’s, whereby a great amount of heat flow is created below the hard crust (in the upper mantle), which ultimately gives rise to regions where magma erupts onto the surface?
“That’s the big question,” Ashley Davies, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who researches Io, recently told Mashable.