There are four large moons within Jupiter. The Galileo Moons are named after Galileo Galilee, who made the first recorded observations of them in 1610. The rocky moon Io is slightly larger than the Moon and denser. It is the most geologically active body in the Solar System, with more than 400 active volcanoes on its surface.

It is arguably one of the most hellish environments in the Solar System because of the intense radiation it gets from Jupiter's magnetic field. Scientists have been perplexed by the large ridges visible on the surface, which are as large as any seen on Earth. Thanks to a recent study led by Rutgers University, there is now an explanation for how these formations can exist on a surface.

Nature Communications recently published a study on the Aeolian transport on Io from lava. George McDonald and Lujendra Ojha are both assistant professors in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutger's. They were joined by researchers from the University of Oregon, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, and NASA.

This annotated image highlights the location of the new heat source in the southern hemisphere of the Jupiter moon Io. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

The team's research is based on data from NASA's Galileo satellite, which flew over Jupiter between 1995 and 2003 and recorded many scientific firsts. The Galileo probe made several passes by all of the largest moons while it was focused on Jupiter's atmosphere and magnetosphere.

The first detailed maps of these moons were created because of the flybys and images it took of the Galileans. The maps resulted in the discovery of how active volcanoes erupt on Io. These eruptions cause lava to travel up to 300 miles into space. The nature of Io's surface consisted of black solidified lava flows, effusive lava streams, sand, and sulfur dioxide.

Researchers identified some strange features on the surface that they said were Dune-like, but concluded they weren't dunes since Io has such weak winds. dunes are hills or ridges of sand that form strong winds according to our current scientific understanding McDonald explained in a recent press release that his team's research may indicate that the word requires revision.

“Our studies point to the possibility of Io as a new ‘dune world.’ We have proposed, and quantitatively tested, a mechanism by which sand grains can move, and in turn dunes could be forming there… This work tells us that the environments in which dunes are found are considerably more varied than the classical, endless desert landscapes on parts of Earth or on the fictional planet Arrakis in ‘Dune.’

Artist’s impression of the Galileo Spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter. Credit: NASA

The team did a simulation of the physical processes that control grain motion. To calculate its path, the forces acting on a single grain of basalt rock or frost were modeled using mathematical equations. When lava flows into sulfur dioxide beneath the moon's surface, it creates a fast- moving vent that can move a lot of grains and allow the formation of large-scale features like dunes.

The research team compared their results to photos of Io's surface taken by the Galileo spacecraft, after they had devised a mechanism for explaining how dunes could form. They found that the crests and height-to-width ratios were in line with what has been seen with dunes on Earth and other planets.

Significant implications are expected from the new study for the study of planets, moons, and other bodies in the Solar System. Like many planetary science discoveries made in recent decades, bodies beyond Earth have been shown to have geological features similar to those observed by geologists and Earth scientists here at home. The features formed from different materials and were driven by different mechanisms.

Io's dune features are not like those on icy bodies in the Solar System. When robotic missions begin exploring moons like Io and its Galilean siblings in the near future, these discoveries and the improved understanding of this type of research will come in handy.

Rutger's Today is a Nature Communications publication.