Jupiters Four Galilean Moons

The four large moons of Jupiter are very large, ranging in size from Europa, only a bit smaller than the earth's moon, to Ganymede, which is larger than the planet Mercury. Certainly, they are large enough to have been discovered even through the crude telescope of Galileo Galilei, after whom they have been given their group name. In his notebooks, Galileo called the moons simply I, II, III, and IV. Fortunately, they were eventually given more poetic names, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, drawn from Roman mythology. These four are, appropriately, the attendants serving the god Jupiter.

A montage of Jupiter and its four planet-sized Galilean moons, photographed in 1979 by Voyager 1.

(Image from NASA)

Io is closest to Jupiter, orbiting at an average distance of 261,640 miles (421,240 km); Europa comes next (416,020 miles or 669,792 km); then Ganymede (663,400 miles or 1,068,074 km); and finally Callisto (1,165,600 miles or 1,876,616 km). Intriguingly, data from Galileo suggests that the core of Io is metallic, and its outer layers rocky— much like the planets closest to the sun. Europa has a rocky core, with a covering of ice and water. The two outer large moons, Ganymede and Callisto, also have more icy surfaces surrounding rocky cores.

This pattern of decreasing density with distance from the central body mimics that of the solar system at large, in which the densest planets, those with metallic cores, orbit nearest the sun, while those composed of less dense materials orbit farthest away. This similarity is no mere coincidence and can be used to discover more about how the Jupiter "system" formed and evolved.

Let's look briefly at each of Jupiter's large moons.

Because of our own moon, we are accustomed to thinking of moons generally as geologically dead places. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Io, which has the distinction of being the most geologically active object in the solar system.

A spectacular portrait of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io by the Galileo spacecraft. The image was created on March 29, 1998, at a range of 183,000 miles (294,000 kilometers) above Io.

(Image from JPL/NASA)

Io's spectacularly active volcanoes continually spew lava, which keeps the surface of Io relatively smooth—any craters are quickly filled in—but also angry-looking, vivid orange and yellow, sulfurous. In truth, Io is much too small to generate the kind of heat energy that produces vulcanism (volcanic activity); however, orbiting as close as it does to Jupiter, it is subjected to the giant planet's tremendous gravitational field, which produces tidal forces (see Chapter 10, "The Moon: Our Closest Neighbor"). These forces stretch the planet from its spherical shape and create the geologically unsettled conditions on Io. Think about what happens when you rapidly squeeze a small rubber ball. The action soon makes the ball quite warm. The forces exerted on Io by Jupiter are analogous to this, but on a titanic scale. Don't invest in an Io globe for your desk. Its surface features change even faster than political boundaries on the earth!

In contrast to Io, Europa is a cold world—but probably not an entirely frozen world, and perhaps, therefore, not a dead world. Images from Galileo suggest that Europa is covered by a crust of water ice, which is networked with cracks and ridges. It is possible that beneath this frozen crust is an ocean of liquid water (not frozen water or water vapor). Liquid water is certainly a requisite of life on Earth, though the presence of water does not dictate the existence of life. Still, the prospects are most exciting. Europa may be a literal lifeboat in the outer solar system, although before we get our hopes up, we need to realize just how cold Europa is at 130 K and how thin its atmosphere is—at a pressure approximately one billionth that on Earth.

Ice on the surface of Europa. The smooth dark regions may be areas where water has welled up from underneath the "ice shelf" that covers the moon.

(Image from NASA/JPL)

Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system (bigger than the planet Mercury). Its surface shows evidence of subsurface ice that was liquefied by the impact of aster oids and then refrozen. Callisto is smaller but similar in composition. Both are ancient worlds of water ice, impacted by craters. There is little evidence of the current presence of liquid water on these moons.

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