A new study conducted by Washington University researchers tries to provide a better picture on how the massive mountains on Jupiter's moon Io were formed, which have puzzled scientists for years.

People first became aware of Io's incredibly high mountains during the Galileo mission to the Jupiter system in the 1990s.

Researchers noticed that these mountains looked differently compared to the ones on Earth. While the elevations on our planet had a more tectonic form, those on Io take shape in isolated blocks.

When scientists tried to find out how Io's mountains came to be, they examined the shape of the elevations. Research scientist Michael T. Bland and his colleagues at Washington University, however, focused on the behavior of the moon's crust instead.

Through the use of advanced computer models, Bland and his team were able to confirm that volcanic activity did play an important role in helping form Io's high mountains.

They discovered that as magma flowed from the moon's interior into the surface, the pressure caused the surface to be forced downward, creating stressors into the crust. The stress continued to build over time, eventually causing some portions of the crust to be forced upward and developing into isolated mountains.

This process is considered to be entirely different from what is typically observed on Earth and the rest of the solar system's planets where elevations are formed by shifts in tectonic plates.

Bland said that aside from helping create mountains, tectonic plates work alongside volcanic eruptions in a convection system that allows planets to cool themselves.

Jupiter's moon, on the other hand, employs a vastly different cooling system. Whenever magma starts to build up in its interior, it flows to the surface where it cools, but is then sent back to the interior once it subsides. It doesn't involve any movement from Io's tectonic plates.

The process, however, causes the deep stresses to limit where magma can flow through to the surface. This is where Io's massive mountains come in.

"The mountains reduce these stresses and allow the magma to more easily be transported from the crust," Bland said. "That's the big result."

Bland and his team's findings show that the mountains are more than just mere products of volcanic activity on Io. They are a crucial part of how the moon is able to cool itself.

As these mountains are formed, they effectively relieve stress in their area to allow the magma from the moon's interior to flow.

The findings of the Washington University study are featured in the journal Nature.

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