Oops! I Learned Something Wrong About Io

Hello, friends!

As you may remember from a previous post, Io is my favorite moon in the Solar System.  He may not be the prettiest moon, and he certainly isn’t the most habitable.  I, for one, would never, ever, ever want to live there.  You see, Io is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System.  He is constantly—and I do mean constantly!—spewing up this mixture of molten hot sulfur compounds.  It gets everywhere, and it is totally gross.

But it’s also super fascinating—fascinating enough that Io ended up becoming my #1 favorite moon in the whole Solar System.  I’ve read a lot about Io over the years.  I thought I understood Io pretty well.  But I was wrong.  One of the facts in my personal collection of Io-related facts was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Io’s volcanism works.  Let me explain:

Io is caught in this gravitational tug of war between his planet (Jupiter) and his fellow Galilean moons (Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto).  Jupiter’s gravity pulls one way; the moons pull another; Io is caught in the middle, feeling understandably queasy.  I always thought this gravitational tug-of-war was directly responsible for Io’s volcanic activity.  But it’s not.  Recently, while reading a book called Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space, I realized that I had some unlearning to do.

The gravitational tug-of-war has forced Io into a highly elliptical (non-circular) orbit.  This means there are times when Io gets very close to Jupiter, and times when Io is much farther away.  When Io’s orbit brings him close to Jupiter, Jupiter’s gravity compresses Io’s crust.  And when Io moves father away, his crust gets a chance to relax.  This cycle of compressing and relaxing—of squeezing and unsqueezing—causes Io’s interior to get hot, which, in turn, keeps Io’s volcanoes erupting.

This squeezing and unsqueezing action wouldn’t happen if not for Io’s highly elliptical orbit, so the gravitational tug-of-war with Jupiter’s other moons is still partially responsible for Io’s volcanism.  But the tug-of-war is not the direct cause of Io’s volcanism, as I always assumed it to be.

I wanted to share all this with you today because some of you may have had the same misunderstanding about Io that I did.  Hopefully I’ve cleared that up for you!  But also, I think this is a good example of how the process of lifelong learning works.  If you’re a lifelong learner (as I am), you may have favorite topics that you think you know an awful lot about.  But there’s always more to learn, and sometimes learning more means unlearning a few things that you thought you already knew.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you’re an Io fanatic like me, I highly recommend Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space by Kevin Peter Hand.  The book is mainly about Europa and the other icy/watery moons of the outer Solar System, but there’s a surprising amount of information in there about Io, too.  Apparently, if it turns out that Europa really is home to alien life (as many suspect her to be), then Io may have played a crucial role in making that alien life possible.

Sciency Words A to Z: JUICE

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, J is for:

JUICE

Speaking as a space enthusiast and a citizen of the United States, I have to confess I’m a bit disappointed with the status of the American space program.  While there have been some success stories—New Horizons, Curiosity, Scott Kelly’s year in space—I can’t help but feel like NASA has spent the last decade or so floundering.

However, it’s encouraging to see that so many other space agencies around the world are starting to pick up the slack.  My favorite example of this is the JUICE mission, a project of the European Space Agency (E.S.A.).

Astrobiologists have taken a keen interest in the icy moons of Jupiter.  There’s compelling evidence that one of those moons (Europa) has an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface.  There’s also a growing suspicion that two more of those moons (Ganymede and Callisto) may have subsurface oceans as well.

The original plan was for NASA and the E.S.A. to pool their resources for one big, giant mission to the Jupiter system.  But then the 2008 financial crisis hit.  The U.S. Congress was loath to spend money on anything—especially space stuff.  “Due to the unavailability of the proposed international partnerships […]”—that’s how this E.S.A. report describes the matter.

So the E.S.A. decided to go it alone. Personally, I think this was a very brave move.  E.S.A. has never done a mission to the outer Solar System before, not without NASA’s help.  But there has to be a first time for everything, right?  And so JUICE—the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer—began.  It’s not my favorite acronym, but it works.

According to E.S.A.’s website, JUICE will conduct multiple flybys of Europa and Callisto before settling into orbit around Ganymede.  You may be wondering why JUICE won’t be orbiting Europa.  This is in large part because of the radiation environment around Jupiter.  Europa may be more exciting to astrobiologists, but Ganymede is a safer place to park your spacecraft.

Meanwhile, NASA has recovered much of the funding it lost after the 2008 financial crisis, and they’re once again planning to send their own mission to the Jupiter system.  So maybe NASA and E.S.A. will get to explore those icy moons together after all!  Or maybe not.  According to this article from the Planetary Society, NASA’s budget is under threat once again.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but no matter what happens to NASA’s budget, E.S.A. seems fully committed to JUICE.  So speaking as a space enthusiast, at least I have that to look forward to.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, how do you measure the size of an alien civilization?

The Titan Mission That Could’ve Been

This is a follow-up to my recent post about NASA’s next flagship-class mission. There seemed to be a lot of interest in the comments about a possible mission to Titan and/or Enceladus, Saturn’s most famous moons.

The competition for flagship mission funding can get pretty intense. The Titan Saturn System Mission (or T.S.S.M.) was a strong contender last time around, as was a proposed mission to Europa, the most watery moon of Jupiter.

According to Titan Unveiled by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton, things got a little nasty when the Europa team started calling Titan “Callisto with weather,” the implication being that Titan was geologically boring.

Callisto, by the way, is a large by often overlooked moon of Jupiter.

Ultimately Team Europa won. NASA deemed their proposal to be closer to launch-readiness. Now after a few years delay due to a certain global financial meltdown, the Europa Clipper Mission appears to be on track for a 2022 launch date (fingers crossed).

As excited as I am for Europa Clipper, the mission to Titan would’ve been really cool too. It actually would have included three—possibly four—spacecraft.

  • A lake-lander to explore Titan’s liquid methane lakes.
  • A hot air balloon to explore the organic chemical fog surrounding Titan.
  • A Titan orbiter to observe Titan from space and also relay data from the lander and balloon back to Earth.
  • And a possible Enceladus orbiter, built by the European Space Agency, which would have tagged along for the ride to Saturn.

It’s a shame T.S.S.M. didn’t get the green light from NASA. Just think: we would’ve had so many cool things going on at once in the Saturn System, enough to almost rival the activity we’ve got going on on Mars!

But now once Europa Clipper is safely on its way (again, fingers crossed), Team Titan will have another shot at getting their mission off the ground.

Sciency Words: Frost Line

Welcome to a very special holiday edition of Sciency Words! Today’s science or science-related term is:

FROST LINE

When a new star is forming, it’s typically surrounded by a swirling cloud of dust and gas called an accretion disk. Heat radiating from the baby star plus heat trapped in the disk itself vaporizes water and other volatile chemicals, which are then swept off into space by the solar wind.

But as you move farther away from the star, the temperature of the accretion disk tends to drop. Eventually, you reach a point where it’s cold enough for water to remain in its solid ice form. This is known as the frost line (or snow line, or ice line, or frost boundary).

Of course not all volatiles freeze or vaporize at the same temperature. When necessary, science writers will specify which frost line (or lines) they’re talking about. For example, a distinction might be made between the water frost line versus the nitrogen frost line versus the methane frost line, etc. But in general, if you see the term frost line by itself without any specifiers, I think you can safely assume it’s the water frost line.

Even though our Sun’s accretion disk is long gone, the frost line still loosely marks the boundary between the warmth of the inner Solar System and the coldness of the outer Solar System. The line is smack-dab in the middle of the asteroid belt, and it’s been observed that main belt asteroids tend to be rockier or icier depending on which side of the line they’re on.

It was easier for giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn to form beyond the frost line, since they had so much more solid matter to work with. And icy objects like Europa, Titan, and Pluto—places so cold that water is basically a kind of rock—only exist as they do because they formed beyond the frost line. This has led to the old saying:

dc23-outer-solar-system-christmas-party

Okay, maybe that’s not an old saying, but I really wanted this to be a holiday-themed post.