Jupiter's volcano-pocked moon Io has been found by NASA's Galileo spacecraft to have a giant iron core that takes up half its diameter, scientists report in today's issue of Science magazine.
The spacecraft also has detected a large "hole" in Jupiter's magnetic field near Io, leading to speculation about whether Io possesses its own magnetic field. If so, it would be the first planetary moon known to have one.
These newly identified characteristics of Io may be related to the intense heating of the moon caused by the constant squeezing and distortion of Io in Jupiter's powerful gravitational grip, according to Galileo Project Scientist Dr. Torrence Johnson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Io is the most geologically active body in the Solar System, and though it is less than a third of Earth's size, it generates twice as much heat as the Earth.
"Jupiter's massive gravity field distorts the shape of Io in the same way that tides are raised in Earth's oceans by the gravitational tugs of the Sun and Moon," said Johnson. As Io orbits Jupiter, these so-called "body tides" rise and fall due to subtle changes in Io's orbit which, in turn, are caused by the gravitational nudges from Europa and Ganymede, other moons of Jupiter.
As a result, Io is squeezed like a rubber ball. Friction created by this action heats and melts rock within Io to produce the volcanoes and lava flows seen all over its surface and huge geysers that spew sulfur dioxide onto Io's landscape.
The large, dense core Galileo found within Io was deduced from data taken during the spacecraft's flyby within 899 kilometers (559 miles) of the moon last Dec. 7, as Galileo passed by Io on its way to enter orbit around Jupiter. Precise measurements of the spacecraft's radio signal revealed small deviations in Galileo's trajectory caused by the effects of Io's own gravity field.
From these data, Galileo scientists have determined that Io has a two-layer structure. At the center is a metallic core, probably made of iron and iron sulfide, about 900 kilometers (560 miles) in radius, which is overlain by a mantle of partially molten rock and crust, according to JPL's Dr. John Anderson, team leader of Galileo's celestial mechanics experiment and principal author of the paper published in Science today. The core was probably formed from heating in the interior of the moon, either when it originally formed or as a result of the perpetual tidal heating driving its volcanoes.
Galileo scientists are also trying to determine the cause of the hole they found in Jupiter's magnetic field when the spacecraft was closest to Io. "Instead of increasing continuously as the spacecraft neared Jupiter, the magnetic field strength took a sudden drop of about 30 percent," said Johnson.
"It's an astonishing result and completely unexpected," said Dr. Margaret Kivelson of the University of California at Los Angeles, who heads Galileo's magnetic fields investigation team. Preliminary analyses of these data are currently being prepared for formal publication.
"The data suggest that something around Io -- possibly a magnetic field generated by Io itself -- is creating a bubble or hole in Jupiter's own powerful magnetic field," Kivelson said. "But it's not clear to us just how Io can dig such a deep and wide magnetic hole."
Possible explanations for this signature can only be sorted out using data from all the other space physics instruments onboard Galileo, said Johnson. "We're eagerly awaiting the return of data from the magnetospheric measurements taken during the Io flyby to see if we can resolve this mystery," he said. This data, recorded onboard the spacecraft, will be transmitted back to Earth in June or July.
If analysis of this data eventually proves that Io indeed has a magnetic field of its own, it would be the first moon shown to have one. Io would join the Earth, planet Mercury and the outer giant planets as bodies in the Solar System that generate their own magnetic fields.
Other studies conducted by Galileo during its December flyby of Io have provided new evidence that Io is most likely the source of high velocity dust streams littering millions of miles of space around Jupiter.
In July 1994, Galileo's dust detector began sensing dust streams more powerful than those previously discovered by the Ulysses spacecraft. Dust detectors on Galileo sensed more and more particles during its approach to Jupiter, reaching a peak of 20,000 impacts per day during the longest and most intense interplanetary dust storm ever observed.
These fast-moving particles travel at speeds of 50 to 100 kilometers per second (30 to 60 miles per second) away from Jupiter -- fast enough to escape the Solar System. These dust impacts continued up to the time of Galileo's Io flyby and then ceased, said Dr. Eberhard Grun of Germany's Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, who is principal investigator for Galileo's dust detector experiment.
"My preliminary interpretation of these observations is that they support the idea that Io is in some way the source of the Jupiter dust streams," Grun said.
One theory proposed after the NASA Voyager spacecraft flybys in the late 1970s is that dust particles emitted from Io's volcanoes could become electrically charged and then swept away by Jupiter's rotating magnetic field. Recent modifications to this theory suggest that the dust is subsequently accelerated in the magnetosphere and flung outward from Jupiter at high velocity, creating dust streams.
Galileo's next close encounter with a moon of Jupiter will occur June 27, when the spacecraft will pass about 850 kilometers (530 miles) above the surface of Ganymede. Larger than Mercury, Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System. Galileo will make repeated close flybys of Ganymede, Callisto and Europa during its two-year mission in orbit around Jupiter.
Galileo was launched aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on Oct. 18, 1989. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC.
Additional information on the Galileo mission and its results can be found on the World Wide Web at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/galileo/