Giant waves of extraterrestrial lava spotted on Io

Astronomers have mapped Jupiter's moon and discovered two huge lava waves sweeping through a volcanic crater the size of New Jersey.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr

A team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, have created an infrared map of Loki Patera, the largest lava lake on Io, Jupiter's fourth-largest moon. The map showed the presence of two enormous waves, which could have been caused by the hardened lava sinking to the bottom.

Io is the most volcanically active place in the solar system, around the size of New Jersey, a million times the size of a lava lake on Earth. A rare event allowed the most detailed look at the crater yet -- Io was occulted, or obscured, by fellow moon Europa. Europa's surface consists of water ice, which reflects very little infrared sunlight. The team's findings were published this week in the journal Nature.

Because of volcanic activity, the Loki Patera, which is 200 kilometres (127 miles) across and has a hot surface area of 21,500 square kilometres, brightens every 400 to 600 days. The reason for this is not known for certain, but a popular theory is overturning lava. The lava on the surface cools and hardens, which makes it denser than the molten lava underneath. This then breaks off and sinks.

The team will perform similar observations during the next Europa occultation, but because the event is a rare one, it will be some time. The next one won't take place until 2021.

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