The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Hubble Space Telescope are set to team up to observe the most volcanic object in the solar system: Jupiter’s moon Io.
The two space telescopes will collect remote data about the world of interest, and that information will then be used by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. More specifically, the data will help guide Juno during a future flyby of Io, where the probe will investigate how the highly volcanic moon contributes to the presence of plasma in the environment around Jupiter.
The investigation will be conducted by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the organization that has given JWST and Hubble observation time by the Space Telescope Science Institute. The SwRI team will collect Io data with Hubble during the telescope’s 122 Earth orbits, supplementing these results with approximately five hours of James Webb Space Telescope observation time.
“The timing of this project is critical,” said Curt Rutherford, principal investigator on the campaign and researcher at SwRI, he said in a statement. “Over the next year, Juno will overtake Io several times, providing rare opportunities to combine in-situ observations with remote observations of this complex system.”
Related: A massive volcanic eruption that lasts for several months shakes Jupiter’s moon Io
“We hope to gain new insights into Io’s exciting volcanism, the interactions of the plasma-moon and neutral gas and plasma clusters that spread across Jupiter’s vast magnetosphere and give off Jupiter’s intense auroral emissions,” Retherford added.
NASA estimates that Io’s surface is dotted with hundreds of active volcanoes that can blast lava dozens of miles into the Jovian moon’s thin, waterless atmosphere.
Io, which is roughly the size of Earth’s moon and Jupiter’s innermost Galilean moon, is thought to be highly volcanic because the gravitational effects of its host planet generate tidal forces that crush and compress this moon. Jupiter’s other moons, including the rest of the Galilean moons, have a similar effect on Io as well, further exacerbating this gravitational storm.
In fact, these forces are so strong that they can cause the surface of Io to rise and fall by up to 330 feet (100 meters). As you might expect, such intense volcanic activity affects the entire Jupiter system.
The intense volcanism of Io drives the donut cloud around Jupiter
For example, particles escaping from Io’s atmosphere are thought to be a major source of material trapped in Jupiter’s magnetic field. These escaping atmospheric gases are ionized, which means they undergo a process in which intense heat strips electrons from atoms to create a dynamic sea of charged particles.
“Most of this material is not actually seeping directly from volcanoes, but is associated with the upwelling of sulfur dioxide frosts from the surface of the dayside of Io,” Catherine D. Claire, a co-author of the project and a scientist at Caltech, said in the release. “The interaction between Io’s atmosphere and the surrounding plasma provides an escape mechanism for gases released from the frozen surface of the moon.”
This forms a cake-shaped cloud of charged particles, called the Io Plasma Torus (IPT), that surrounds Jupiter. When electrons collide with ions at IPT, they produce ultraviolet radiation that can be detected by telescopes here on Earth and in space.
However, more research is needed to fully understand IPT, because it is difficult to assess how strongly it relates to volcanic activity on Io. It is also an open question about the effects of Io on other bodies in the Jovian system, such as those of the other large Galilean moons.
“For example, how much sulfur is transported from Io to Europa’s surface? How do the auroral features on Io compare with the aurora borealis on Earth — the northern lights — and Jupiter?” Fran Baginal, co-principal investigator on the project and researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said in the release.
The team believes the key to better understanding these connections is by studying the Jovian system as a whole rather than in parts. This requires more data than Juno can provide, though it is impressive.
Juno has been studying the Jovian system and its environment since July 4, 2016, when it reached the vicinity of the gas giant and its moons after a journey of 1.7 billion miles from Earth. This was a journey that took five years to complete.
Since then, the spacecraft has completed several flybys of Jupiter and its large moons, particularly Europa. It last flew by Io on July 30, coming within about 13,700 miles (22,000 kilometers) of the fiery moon while gathering data about its atmosphere and magnetic field. Juno will come particularly close to Io again on December 30 of this year and then again on February 1, 2024.
However, on September 20, Juno will make a further pass to IU, which will be of particular interest to SwRI. This flyby of Io will be timed so that it can be observed by Hubble and JWST simultaneously.
This means the two telescopes will get a chance to work together and observe what Juno is seeing, but at a distance, giving scientists a bird’s-eye view of the Jovian system they’re looking for.
“The opportunity for a comprehensive approach to Io investigations has not been available since a series of Galileo spacecraft flybys from 1999 to 2000 were supported by Hubble with a torrential 30-orbit campaign,” concluded Rutherford. “The combination of Juno’s extensive in-situ measurements with our remote-sensing observations will undoubtedly enhance our understanding of Io’s role in driving dual phenomena in the Jupiter system.”
Although future missions to Jupiter and its moons are on the horizon, with the Europa Clipper and Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) probes arriving in the Jovian system between 2029 and 2031, neither will fly near Io.
this means, According to SWRIAnother opportunity to make this kind of observation wouldn’t arise until at least the 2030s.