The Far End of the Block

In This Chapter

V Anatomy of Saturn's rings

V The other jovian ring systems

V The large moons of Jupiter and the other jovians

V Europa and Titan: Is life possible there?

V Atmospheres of the jovian moons

V Tiny and distant: Pluto and Charon

Among the great showpieces of our solar system are the fabulous rings of Saturn. Visible through a pair of binoculars, Saturn's ring system appears as solid as the planet. The truth is that the rings are not solid at all, but are composed of small bits of ice and rock. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Voyager spacecraft and ground-based adaptive optics images show that all of the jovian planets have ring systems—not just Saturn.

If you were somehow disappointed to discover, in the preceding chapter, that the jovian planets are just big balls of gas, you can take satisfaction in knowing that some of their moons at least are solid, large, and much more like the terrestrial planets. Jupiter's Ganymede and Saturn's Titan, for example, are larger than the planet Mercury. And two of the jovian moons, Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Titan, present some of the most promising locations for life, outside of Earth, in the solar system.

And then there is Pluto. Unknown before 1930 because of its great distance and diminutive size (it is smaller than the earth's moon and similar in size to many of the jovian moons), Pluto is unlike either the terrestrial or jovian worlds. But we first have unfinished business from the preceding chapter. We begin with the rings of the outer planets.

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