Friday, April 30, 2010

Moons of Gas Giants

One of the key differences between the terrestrial and many jovian planets is that, while the terrestrials have few if any moons, the jovians each have several: 16 (at least) for Jupiter, over 25 for Saturn, 15 for Uranus, and 8 for Neptune. Of these known moons, only 6 are classified as large bodies, comparable in size to the earth’s moon. Our own moon is all the more remarkable when compared to the moons of the much larger jovian planets. It is larger than all of the known moons except for Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, and Io. The largest Jovian moons (in order of decreasing radius) are …

➤ Ganymede orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 1,630 miles (2,630 km)
➤ Titan orbits Saturn; approximate radius: 1,600 miles (2,580 km)
➤ Callisto orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 1,488 miles (2,400 km)
➤ Io orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 1,130 miles (1,820 km)
➤ Europa orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 973 miles (1,570 km)
➤ Triton orbits Neptune; approximate radius: 856 miles (1,380 km)

It is interesting to compare these to the earth’s moon, with a radius of about 1,079 miles (1,740 km), and the planet Pluto, smaller than them all, with a radius of 713 miles (1,150 km).
The rest of the moons are either medium-sized bodies—with radii from 124 miles (200 km) to 465 miles (750 km)—or small bodies, with radii of less than 93 miles (150 km). Many of the moons are either entirely or mostly composed of water ice, and some of the smallest bodies are no more than irregularly shaped rock and ice chunks. Thanks to the Voyager and Galileo space probes, we have some remarkable images and data about the moons at the far end of our solar system. Those that have received the most attention, since they are the largest, are the so-called Galilean moons of Jupiter; Saturn’s Titan; and Neptune’s Triton. They were first observed in 1610 by Galileo Galilei.

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