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Simulating the Atmosphere of Jupiter’s Moon Io

Io has one of the most dynamic atmospheres in the solar system due in part to an orbital resonance with Europa and Ganymede that causes intense tidal heating and volcanism. The volcanism serves to create a myriad of volcanic plumes across Io’s surface that sustain temporally varying local atmospheres. The plumes primarily eject sulfur dioxide (SO2) that condenses on Io’s surface during the relatively cold night. During the day, insolation warms the surface to temperatures where a global partially collisional atmosphere can be sustained by sublimation from SO2 surface frosts. Both the volcanic and sublimation atmospheres serve as the source for the Jovian plasma torus which flows past Io at ~57 km/s. The high energy ions and electrons in the Jovian plasma torus interact with Io’s atmosphere causing atmospheric heating, chemical reactions, as well as altering the circumplanetary winds. Energetic ions which impact the surface can sputter material and create a partially collisional atmosphere. Simulations suggest that energetic ions from the Jovian plasma cannot penetrate to the surface when the atmospheric column density is greater than 1015 cm−2. These three mechanisms for atmospheric support (volcanic, sublimation, and sputtering) all play a role in supporting Io’s atmosphere but their relative contributions remain unclear.

In the present work, the Direct Simulation Monte Carlo (DSMC) method is used to simulate the interaction of Io’s atmosphere with the Jovian plasma torus and the results are compared to observations. These comparisons help constrain the relative contributions of atmospheric support as well as highlight the most important physics in Io’s atmosphere.  These rarefied gas dynamics simulations improve upon earlier models by using a three-dimensional domain encompassing the entire planet computed in parallel. The effects of plasma heating, planetary rotation, inhomogeneous surface frost, molecular residence time of SO2 on the exposed non-frost surface, and surface temperature distribution are investigated.