Satellites of the Jovian Planets

The gas giants have numerous satellites, many of which are large, and seem as interesting as any planet. Small "new" satellites of the Jovian planets are being discovered every few years.

Jupiter's Galilean satellites, so named because Galileo Galilei discovered them in 1610, exhibit great diversity from each other. All four can be easily seen in a small telescope or binoculars. Io (pictured here) is the closest of these to Jupiter. Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system, due to heat resulting from tidal forces (discussed further in Chapter 3) which flex its crust. Powerful Earth-based telescopes can observe volcanoes resurfacing Io continuously. Europa is covered with an extremely smooth shell of water ice. There is probably an ocean of liquid water below the shell, warmed by the same forces that heat Io's volcanoes. Ganymede has mountains, valleys, craters, and cooled lava flows. Its ancient surface resembles Earth's Moon, and it is also suspected of having a sub-surface ocean. Callisto, the outermost Galilean moon, is pocked all over with impact craters, indicating that its surface has changed little since the early days of its formation.

Saturn's largest moon, enigmatic Titan, is larger than the planet Mercury. Almost a terrestrial planet itself, Titan has a hazy nitrogen atmosphere denser than Earth's. The Huygens Probe executed a spectacurly successful mission in January 2005, revealing rivers and lakebeds on the surface, and extensive details of its atmosphere. Saturn also has many smaller satellites made largely of


water ice. The "front," or leading, side of Saturn's icy satellite Iapetus is covered in dark material of some kind, and an equatorial mountain range higher than Olympus Mons on Mars was recently discovered on this 1450-km diameter moon. Icy Enceladus orbits within the densest part of Saturn's E Ring, and may somehow be the source of that ring's fine ice-particle makeup.


All of Uranus's five largest moons have extremely different characteristics. The surface of Miranda, the smallest of these, shows evidence of extensive geologic activity. Umbriel's surface is dark, Titania and Ariel have trenches and faults, and Oberon's impact craters show bright rays similar to those on Callisto.

Neptune's largest moon Triton is partly covered with nitrogen ice and snow, and has currently active nitrogen geysers that leave sooty deposits on the surface downwind.



Copyright 2005 -  S. B. EglI