Many people think that the answer to ‘what is the largest moon in the Solar System’ is our Moon. It is not. Our Moon is the fifth largest natural satellite. Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, is the largest in this solar system. At 5,268 km at the equator, it is larger than Mercury, the dwarf planet Pluto, and three times larger than the Moon orbiting Earth. According to information from NASA,if Ganymede were to break free of Jupiter’s gravitational pull it would be classified as a planet.
Ganymede has an iron-metallic core that generates a magnetic field. The core is surrounded by a mantle of rock, which is, in turn, covered by a thick shell of ice and rock. The outer shell is up to 800 km thick. On top of the outer shell is a thin layer of material(accreted?) that is a mixture of ice and rock. In images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1996, astronomers discovered a tenuous atmosphere of oxygen. The atmosphere would not support known life forms, but its very existence is interesting to science.
Through spacecraft observation, there are several facts known about the surface of Ganymede. Its surface shows two types of terrain. Forty percent of the surface is covered with highly cratered dark regions, while the remainder is covered by light grooved terrain. The light grooving forms intricate patterns across surface of the moon, some of which are thousands of km long. Sulcus, a term that means a groove or burrow, is often used to describe the grooving. This portion of the terrain was most likely formed by tensional faulting or the release of water from beneath the surface. Ridges as high as 700 m have been observed. The dark regions are heavily cratered, old and rough, and are believed to be the original crust of the moon.
Ganymede was discovered by Galileo on January 7, 1610. He made the discovery, along with three other Jovian moons. It marked the first time a moon was discovered orbiting a planet other than Earth. The discovery contributed to the acceptance of the heliocentric viewpoint over the geocentric that held sway prior to that.
Now you know the answer to ‘what is the largest moon in the Solar System’ and a few interesting facts about Ganymede. Jupiter has 63 moons, so there are plenty more facts for you to discover.
Here’s another article about Ganymede, and one about Ganymede’s lumpy interior.
We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Check them out here.
Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today’s Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.