Icy Jupiter Moon Throws a Curve Ball at Formation Theories

Jun 01, 2005
Icy Jupiter Moon Throws a Curve Ball at Formation Theories

Scientists studying data from NASA's Galileo spacecraft have found that Jupiter's moon Amalthea is a pile of icy rubble less dense than water. Scientists expected moons closer to the planet to be rocky and not icy. The finding shakes up long-held theories of how moons form around giant planets.

Image: Artist's concept of Galileo at Jupiter's moon Amalthea. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Michael Carroll

"I was expecting a body made up mostly of rock. An icy component in a body orbiting so close to Jupiter was a surprise," said Dr. John D. Anderson, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Anderson is lead author of a paper on the findings that appears in the current issue of the journal Science.

"This gives us important information on how Jupiter formed, and by implication, how the solar system formed," Anderson said.

Current models imply that temperatures were high at Amalthea's current position when Jupiter's moons formed, but this is inconsistent with Amalthea being icy. The findings suggest that Amalthea formed in a colder environment. One possibility is that it formed later than the major moons. Another is that the moon formed farther from Jupiter, either beyond the orbit of Jupiter's moon Europa or in the solar nebula at or beyond Jupiter's position. It would have then been transported or captured in its current orbit around Jupiter. Either of these explanations challenges models of moon formation around giant planets.

"Amalthea is throwing us a curve ball," said Dr. Torrence Johnson, co-author and project scientist for the Galileo mission at JPL. "Its density is well below that of water ice, and even with substantial porosity, Amalthea probably contains a lot of water ice, as well as rock." Analysis of density, volume, shape and internal gravitational stresses lead the scientists to conclude that Amalthea is not only porous with internal empty spaces but also contains substantial water ice.

One model for the formation of Jupiter's moons suggests that moons closer to the planet would be made of denser material than those farther out. That is based on a theory that early Jupiter, like a weaker version of the early Sun, would have emitted enough heat to prevent volatile, low-density material from condensing and being incorporated into the closer moons. Jupiter's four largest moons fit this model, with the innermost of them, Io, also the densest, made mainly of rock and iron.

Amalthea is a small red-tinted moon that measures about 168 miles in length and half that in width. It orbits about 181,000 kilometers (112,468 miles) from Jupiter, considerably closer than the Moon orbits Earth. Galileo passed within about 99 miles of Amalthea on Nov. 5, 2002. Galileo's flyby of Amalthea brought the spacecraft closer to Jupiter than at any other time since it began orbiting the giant planet on Dec. 7, 1995. After more than 30 close encounters with Jupiter's four largest moons, the Amalthea flyby was the last moon flyby for Galileo.

The Galileo spacecraft's 14-year odyssey came to an end on Sept. 21, 2003. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, managed the Galileo mission for NASA.

Link: Additional information about the mission is available online at: galileo.jpl.nasa.gov/

Source: NASA

Explore further: SpaceX making Easter delivery of station supplies (Update 2)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Phobos flyby success

Mar 04, 2010

Mars Express encountered Phobos last night, smoothly skimming past at just 67 km, the closest any manmade object has ever approached Mars' enigmatic moon. The data collected could help unlock the origin of ...

Scientists find rings of Jupiter are shaped in shadow

Apr 30, 2008

Scientists from the University of Maryland and the Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany appear to have solved a long-standing mystery about the cause of anomalies in Jupiter's gossamer ...

Two New Moons Discovered Around Uranus

Dec 22, 2005

To the surprise of astronomers, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has photographed a pair of new rings around the distant planet Uranus. The largest is twice the diameter of the planet’s previously known rings. ...

Recommended for you

Quest for extraterrestrial life not over, experts say

Apr 18, 2014

The discovery of an Earth-sized planet in the "habitable" zone of a distant star, though exciting, is still a long way from pointing to the existence of extraterrestrial life, experts said Friday. ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Apr 18, 2014

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...