One of Jupiter's moons has unleashed a series of huge volcanic eruptions over a hellish 2 week period that were so bright they could be studied in detail by ground based observatories.

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Io has earned its right to be known as Jupiter's volcano moon — its dramatic surface is pockmarked with huge calderas and huge eruptions have been observed, sending volcanic debris into space.

But an unprecedented series of eruptions that occurred over 14 days last August has taken scientists by surprise, revealing that this hellish little world may erupt more often than thought.

“We typically expect one huge outburst every one or two years, and they're usually not this bright," said Imke de Pater, of the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of one of two papers accepted for publication in the journal Icarus describing last year's eruptions. “Here we had three extremely bright outbursts, which suggest that if we looked more frequently we might see many more of them on Io."

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Mosaic of Voyager 1 images covering Io's south polar region. The view includes two of Io's ten highest peaks, the Euboea Montes at upper extreme left and Haemus Mons at bottom.NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS

Io is Jupiter's innermost Galilean moon that is 2,300 miles wide, approximately the same size as our moon, and is the only place in the solar system (except Earth) where active volcanoes have been observed. The volcanic activity is driven by powerful tidal interactions with the gas giant that squeeze Io's interior, heating it up. Like Earth's volcanoes, molten rock (magma) is then forced through Io's crust intermittently erupting as volcanoes.

Many Io eruptions are surprisingly powerful and, because of the moon's low gravity, can blast debris high into space, forming a huge umbrella.

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“These new events are in a relatively rare class of eruptions on Io because of their size and astonishingly high thermal emission," said co-investigator and volcanologist Ashley Davies, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, in Pasadena, Calif. “The amount of energy being emitted by these eruptions implies lava fountains gushing out of fissures at a very large volume per second, forming lava flows that quickly spread over the surface of Io."

The first of the series of massive eruptions were detected by the near-infrared camera (NIRC2) attached to the Keck II telescope. Keck II is one of a pair of adaptive optics-powered telescopes at the Keck Observatory located atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea summit.

While recording the eruptions that occurred in the moon's southern hemisphere on Aug. 15, 2013, the researchers saw the brightest emanate from a caldera called Rarog Patera, which produced a 50 square-mile, 30 foot-thick lava flow — enough lava to cover Manhattan Island. Another eruption that was generated by the caldera Heno Patera produced a flow covering 120 square miles. Both eruptions generated “curtains of fire" as lava blasted from long fissures in Io's crust.

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Then on Aug. 29, one of the brightest eruptions ever witnessed on Io was detected by the Gemini North telescope and the Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), also located atop Mauna Kea. This event was hotter than any volcanic eruption seen on Earth today and is more akin to the eruptions that ravaged our planet in its early evolution.

“We are using Io as a volcanic laboratory, where we can look back into the past of the terrestrial planets to get a better understanding of how these large eruptions took place, and how fast and how long they lasted," added Davies.

Images of Io obtained at different infrared wavelengths (in microns, μm, or millionths of a meter) with the W. M. Keck Observatory's 10-meter Keck II telescope on Aug. 15, 2013 (a-c) and the Gemini North telescope on Aug. 29, 2013 (d). The bar on the right of each image indicates the intensity of the infrared emission. Note that emissions from the large volcanic outbursts on Aug. 15 at Rarog and Heno Paterae have substantially faded by Aug. 29. A second bright spot is visible to the north of the Rarog and Heno eruptions in c and to the west of the outburst in d. This hot spot was identified as Loki Patera, a lava lake that appeared to be particularly active at the same time. Image by Imke de Pater and Katherine de Kleer, UC Berkeley.