New explanation for why Jupiter’s moon has gorgeous dunes

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have long wondered how Jupiter’s innermost moon, Io, developed sinuous ridges as grand as those in movies like Dune. A Rutgers study has provided a new explanation for how dunes can form even on an icy and bumpy surface like Io.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, is based on a study of the physical processes that control the movement of grains, combined with image analysis from NASA‘s Galileo spacecraft’s 14-year-long mission, to produce the first detailed maps of Jupiter’s moons.

The new study is expected to expand our scientific understanding of the geological features of these planet-like worlds.

Our research points to the possibility of Io becoming a new “dune world,” said first author George MacDonald, a researcher with the Rutgers Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “We have proposed and quantitatively tested a mechanism by which grains of sand can move around and, in turn, dunes can form there.”

According to modern scientific concepts, dunes are by their nature hills or ridges of sand heaped up by the wind.

Scientists who have conducted previous studies of Io, although describing its surface as containing some dune-like features, have concluded that these ridges cannot be dunes, since the wind strength on Io is weak due to the low density of the moon’s atmosphere.

This work tells us that the environments in which dunes occur are significantly more diverse than the classic, endless desert landscapes in some parts of the Earth, or on the fictional planet Arrakis in Dune, McDonald said.

The Galileo mission, which lasted from 1989 to 2003, recorded so many scientific discoveries that researchers are still studying the data it collected. One of the main discoveries made from these data was the high degree of volcanic activity on Io – so high that volcanoes repeatedly and quickly surfaced on the surface of a small world.

Io’s surface is a mixture of black solidified lava flows and sand, flowing “effusive” lava flows, and “snow” of sulfur dioxide. The scientists used mathematical equations to model the forces acting on a single grain of basalt or frost and calculate its path.

When lava flows into sulfur dioxide below the Moon‘s surface, its ejecta are “dense and fast-moving enough to move grains on Io and possibly contribute to the formation of large-scale features such as dunes,” McDonald said.

Once the researchers came up with a mechanism by which the dunes could form, they turned to photographs of Io’s surface taken by the Galileo spacecraft for more evidence. The spacing between the ridges and the height-to-width ratio they observed were consistent with trends found in dunes observed on Earth and other planets.

“Work like this really allows us to understand how the cosmos works,” said Lujendra Oja, co-author of the work and assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences. “Ultimately, planetary science is what we’re trying to do.”

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