What Is A Moon?

by John Carl Villanueva on March 19, 2010

What Is A Moon

Full Moon

Before the invention of the telescope in the early 1600’s, man just knew of the Moon — a round, mysterious astronomical object that people would gaze up to in the night sky. As time progressed however, astronomers discovered that the moon isn’t exactly unique to earthlings, and other planets had their own moons. So exactly what is a moon?

A moon is defined to be a celestial body that makes an orbit around a planet, including the eight major planets, dwarf planets, and minor planets. A moon may also be referred to as a natural satellite, although to differentiate it from other astronomical bodies orbiting another body, e.g. a planet orbiting a star, the term moon is used exclusively to make a reference to a planet’s natural satellite.

The first moons to be discovered outside of the Earth’s moon were the Galilean moons of Jupiter, named after astronomer and discoverer Galileo Galilei. The moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are Jupiter’s largest and only the first four to be revealed, as to date, the planet has 63 moons.

Other than the four Galilean moons, Saturn’s Titan and Neptune’s Triton are two other moons which are comparable in size to the Earth’s Moon. In fact, these seven moons are the largest natural satellites in the solar system, measuring more than 3,000 kilometers in diameter. Only the inner planets Mercury and Venus have no moons.

An interesting fact about some of the solar system’s largest moons that most people may not be aware of is that a few of them are geologically active. While we may not see the Moon spewing lava or displaying any evidence of tectonic activity, Jupiter’s Io and Europa, Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus, and Neptune’s Triton have been found to be volcanically active bodies.

If the moon count had a grand total of just one in the olden times, that number has ballooned to 336 as of July 2009, with 168 moons orbiting the six planets, while the rest are moons of dwarf planets, asteroids moons, and natural satellites of Trans-Neptunian objects.

As more and more discoveries are made however, astronomers may find it more difficult to put a really defining line on what can or what can’t be classified as a moon. For instance, can you consider a 10-inch rock that’s orbiting Jupiter a moon? If yes, then there could be thousands or even millions of moons out there. If not, then where do you draw the line? Obviously, even the size of an “official” moon is still up for debate, so other than the simple definition of it being a natural satellite of a planet, there really is no clear cut answer to the question, “What is a moon?”.

Here in Universe Today, we have a nice collection of articles that explain why the Moon landings could not have been faked. Here are some of them:

Moon Rocks – Discusses how the Moon rocks are one of the most tangible objects that prove the landings took place.

Moon Landing Hoax – An explanation that counters some of the points raised by skeptics

Apollo 11 Hoax – another point for point discussion by Jerry Coffey

TV – Alert: Mythbusters and the Moon Hoax Myth – a teaser for the Mythbusters episode featuring the so-called hoax. You’ll find the comments below that article equally interesting, by the way.

Here’s an article from NASA that debunks the hoax theory using the Moon rock arguments. Another article about Moon rocks from the same site.

Episodes about the moon from Astronomy Cast. Lend us your ears!

Shooting Lasers at the Moon and Losing Contact with Rovers
The Moon Part I

References:
NASA Solar System Exploration: Moons of Jupiter
NASA Solar System Exploration: Moons

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