Saturn is best known for two things: its iconic ring structures and its large system of natural satellites. Currently, 146 moons and moonlets have been discovered orbiting the ringed giant, 24 of which are regular satellites. These include the seven largest moons, Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas, which are icy bodies believed to have interior oceans. In addition, there are unresolved questions about the age of these satellites, with some suspecting that they formed more recently (like Saturn’s rings, which are a few hundred million years old).
To address these questions, an international team of astronomers created a series of high-resolution simulations coupled with improved estimates of Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) populations. This allowed them to construct a chronology of impacts for Saturn’s most heavily cratered regular satellites – Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Rhea. This established age limits of 4.1 and 4.4 billion years for all five, with the two innermost moons appearing more youthful than the outer three. These results could have significant implications for our understanding of the formation and tidal evolution of moons in the outer Solar System.
Radar evidence shows that geysers on Enceladus are ejecting water that turns to snow. The snow not only falls back on Enceladus’ surface, but also makes its way to its neighboring moons, Mimas and Tethys, making them more reflective. Researchers are calling this a ‘snow cannon.’
Saturn’s moon Mimas is the smallest of the gas giant’s major moons. (Saturn has 62 moons, but some of them are tiny moonlets less than 1 km in diameter.) Two new studies show how Mimas acted as a kind of snow-plow, widening the Cassini division between Saturn’s rings.
Since the Cassini mission arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, it has provided some stunning images of the gas giant and its many moons. And in the course of capturing new views of Titan’s dense atmosphere, Iapetus’ curious “yin-yang” coloration, and the water plumes and “tiger stripes” of Enceladus, it snapped the most richly-detailed images of Mimas ever seen.
But like all good things, Cassini’s days of capturing close-up images of Mimas are coming to an end. As of January 30th, 2017, the probe made its final close approach to the moon, and took the last of it’s close-up pictures in the process. In the future, all observations (and pictures) of Mimas will take place at roughly twice this distance – and will therefore be less detailed.
To be fair, these close approaches were a pretty rare event during the Cassini mission. Over the course of the thirteen years that the probe has been in the Saturn system, only seven flybys have taken place, occurring at distances of less 50,000 km (31,000 mi). At its closest approach, Cassini passed within 41,230 km (25,620 mi) of Mimas.
During this time, the probe managed to take a series of images that allowed for the creation of a beautiful mosaic. This mosaic was made from ten combined narrow-angle camera images, and is one of the highest resolution views ever captured of the icy moon. It also comes in two versions. In one, the left side of Mimas is illuminated by the Sun and the picture is enhanced to show the full moon (seen at top).
In the second version (shown above), natural illumination shows only the Sun-facing side of the moon. They also created an animation that allows viewers to switch between mosaics, showing the contrast. And as you can see, these mosaics provide a very detailed look at Mimas heavily-cratered surface, a well as the large surface fractures that are believed to have been caused by the same impact that created the Herschel Crater.
This famous crater, from which Mimas gets it’s “Death Star” appearance, was photographed during Cassini’s first flyby – which occurred on February 13th, 2010. Named in honor of William Herschel (the discoverer of Uranus, its moons Oberon, and Titania, and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Mimas), this crater measures 130 km (81 mi) across, almost a third of Mimas’ diameter.
Its is also quite deep, as craters go, with walls that are approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) high. Parts of its floor reach as deep as 10 km (6.2 mi), and it’s central peak rises 6 km (3.7 mi) above the crater floor. The impact that created this crater is believed to have nearly shattered Mimas, and also caused the fractures visible on the opposite side of the moon.
It’s a shame we won’t be getting any more close ups of the moon’s many interesting features. However, we can expect a plethora of intriguing images of Saturn’s rings, which it will be exploring in depth as part of the final phase of its mission. The mission is scheduled to end on September 15th, 2017, which will culminate with the crash of the probe in Saturn’s atmosphere.
Welcome back to our series on Settling the Solar System! Today, we take a look at the largest of Saturn’s Moons – Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.
From the 17th century onward, astronomers made some profound discoveries around the planet Saturn, which they believed was the most distant planet of the Solar System at the time. Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Domenico Cassini were the first, spotting the largest moons of Saturn – Titan, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus. More discoveries followed; and today, what we recognized as the Saturn system includes 62 confirmed satellites.
What we know of this system has grown considerably in recent decades, thanks to missions like Voyager and Cassini. And with this knowledge has come multiple proposals that claim how Saturn’s moons should someday be colonized. In addition to boasting the only body other than Earth to have a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, there are also abundant resources in this system that could be harnessed.
Much like the idea of colonizing the Moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and other bodies in the Solar System, the idea of establishing colonies on Saturn’s moons has been explored extensively in science fiction. At the same time, scientific proposals have been made that emphasize how colonies would benefit humanity, allowing us to mount missions deeper into space and ushering in an age of abundance!
Examples in Fiction:
The colonization of Saturn has been a recurring theme in science fiction over the decades. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Titan is home to a human colony of 250,000 people. The colony plays a vital role in commerce, where hydrogen is taken from the atmosphere of Saturn and used as fuel for interplanetary travel.
In Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant series (1983-2001), Saturn’s moons have been colonized by various nations in a post-diaspora era. In this story, Titan has been colonized by the Japanese, whereas Saturn has been colonized by the Russians, Chinese, and other former Asian nations.
In the novel Titan (1997) by Stephen Baxter, the plot centers on a NASA mission to Titan which must struggle to survive after crash landing on the surface. In the first few chapters of Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco(1986), a character ends up frozen on the surface of Titan, where they are stuck for several hundred years.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1996), nitrogen from Titan is used in the terraforming of Mars. In his novel 2312 (2012), humanity has colonized several of Saturn’s moons, which includes Titan and Iapetus. Several references are made to the “Enceladian biota” in the story as well, which are microscopic alien organisms that some humans ingest because of their assumed medicinal value.
As part of his Grand Tour Series, Ben Bova’s novels Saturn (2003) and Titan (2006) address the colonization of the Cronian system. In these stories, Titan is being explored by an artificially intelligent rover which mysteriously begins malfunctioning, while a mobile human Space Colony explores the Rings and other moons.
In his book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (1999), Robert Zubrin advocated colonizing the outer Solar System, a plan which included mining the atmospheres of the outer planets and establishing colonies on their moons. In addition to Uranus and Neptune, Saturn was designated as one of the largest sources of deuterium and helium-3, which could drive the pending fusion economy.
He further identified Saturn as being the most important and most valuable of the three, because of its relative proximity, low radiation, and excellent system of moons. Zubrin claimed that Titan is a prime candidate for colonization because it is the only moon in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere and is rich in carbon-bearing compounds.
On March 9th, 2006, NASA’s Cassini space probe found possible evidence of liquid water on Enceladus, which was confirmed by NASA in 2014. According to data derived from the probe, this water emerges from jets around Enceladus’ southern pole, and is no more than tens of meters below the surface in certain locations. This would would make collecting water considerably easier than on a moon like Europa, where the ice sheet is several km thick.
Data obtained by Cassini also pointed towards the presence of volatile and organic molecules. And Enceladus also has a higher density than many of Saturn’s moons, which indicates that it has a larger average silicate core. All of these resources would prove very useful for the sake of constructing a colony and providing basic operations.
In October of 2012, Elon Musk unveiled his concept for an Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), which was central to his long-term goal of colonizing Mars. At the time, Musk stated that the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT mission departing in 2024.
In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs. This system, which was originally intended to transport settlers to Mars, had evolved in its role to transport human beings to more distant locations in the Solar System – which could include the Jovian and Cronian moons.
Compared to other locations in the Solar System – like the Jovian system – Saturn’s largest moons are exposed to considerably less radiation. For instance, Jupiter’s moons of Io, Ganymede and Europa are all subject to intense radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field – ranging from 3600 to 8 rems day. This amount of exposure would be fatal (or at least very hazardous) to human beings, requiring that significant countermeasures be in place.
In contrast, Saturn’s radiation belts are significantly weaker than Jupiter’s – with an equatorial field strength of 0.2 gauss (20 microtesla) compared to Jupiter’s 4.28 gauss (428 microtesla). This field extends from about 139,000 km from Saturn’s center out to a distance of about 362,000 km – compared to Jupiter’s, which extends to a distance of about 3 million km.
Of Saturn’s largest moons, Mimas and Enceladus fall within this belt, while Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Iapetus all have orbits that place them from just outside of Saturn’s radiation belts to well beyond it. Titan, for example, orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,221,870 km, putting it safely beyond the reach of the gas giant’s energetic particles. And its thick atmosphere may be enough to shield residents from cosmic rays.
In addition, frozen volatiles and methane harvested from Saturn’s moons could be used for the sake of terraforming other locations in the Solar System. In the case of Mars, nitrogen, ammonia and methane have been suggested as a means of thickening the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect to warm the planet. This would cause water ice and frozen CO² at the poles to sublimate – creating a self-sustaining process of ecological change.
Colonies on Saturn’s moons could also serve as bases for harvesting deuterium and helium-3 from Saturn’s atmosphere. The abundant sources of water ice on these moons could also be used to make rocket fuel, thus serving as stopover and refueling points. In this way, a colonizing the Saturn system could fuel Earth’s economy, and the facilitate exploration deeper into the outer Solar System.
Naturally, there are numerous challenges to colonizing Saturn’s moons. These include the distance involved, the necessary resources and infrastructure, and the natural hazards colonies on these moons would have to deal with. For starters, while Saturn may be abundant in resources and closer to Earth than either Uranus or Neptune, it is still very far.
On average, Saturn is approximately 1,429 billion km away from Earth; or ~8.5 AU, the equivalent of eight and a half times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. To put that in perspective, it took the Voyager 1 probe roughly thirty-eight months to reach the Saturn system from Earth. For crewed spacecraft, carrying colonists and all the equipment needed to colonize the surface, it would take considerably longer to get there.
These ships, in order to avoid being overly large and expensive, would need to rely on cryogenics or hibernation-related technology in order to save room on storage and accommodations. While this sort of technology is being investigated for crewed missions to Mars, it is still very much in the research and development phase.
Any vessels involved in the colonization efforts, or used to ship resources to and from the Cronian system, would also need to have advanced propulsion systems to ensure that they could make the trips in a realistic amount of time. Given the distances involved, this would likely require rockets that used nuclear-thermal propulsion, or something even more advanced (like anti-matter rockets).
And while the former is technically feasible, no such propulsion systems have been built just yet. Anything more advanced would require many more years of research and development, and a major commitment in resources. All of this, in turn, raises the crucial issue of infrastructure.
Basically, any fleet operating between Earth and Saturn would require a network of bases between here and there to keep them supplied and fueled. So really, any plans to colonize Saturn’s moons would have to wait upon the creation of permanent bases on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and most likely the Jovian moons. This process would be punitively expensive by current standards and (again) would require a fleet of ships with advanced drive systems.
And while radiation is not a major threat in the Cronian system (unlike around Jupiter), the moons have been subject to a great deal of impacts over the course of their history. As a result, any settlements built on the surface would likely need additional protection in orbit, like a string of defensive satellites that could redirect comets and asteroids before they reached orbit.
Given its abundant resources, and the opportunities it would present for exploring deeper into the Solar System (and maybe even beyond), Saturn and its system of moons is nothing short of a major prize. On top of that, the prospect of colonizing there is a lot more appealing than other locations that come with greater hazards (i.e. Jupiter’s moons).
However, such an effort would be daunting and would require a massive multi-generational commitment. And any such effort would most likely have to wait upon the construction of colonies and/or bases in locations closer to Earth first – such as on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and around Jupiter. But we can certainly hold out hope for the long run, can’t we?
Cassini was launched in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. It will end its mission by plunging into the gas giant. But before then, it will dive through Saturn’s rings a total of 20 times.
The first dive through the rings was just completed, and represents the beginning of Cassini’s final mission phase. On December 4th at 5:09 PST the 2,150 kg, plutonium-powered probe, crossed through a faint and dusty ring created by the moons Janus and Epimetheus. This brought it to within 11,000 km of Saturn’s F-ring.
Though the end of a mission might seem sad, people behind the mission are excited about this final phase, a series of close encounters with the most iconic structures in our Solar System: Saturn’s glorious rings.
“This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.” – Linda Spilker, NASA/JPL
“It’s taken years of planning, but now that we’re finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.”
Even casual followers of space news have enjoyed the steady stream of eye candy from Cassini. But this first orbit through Saturn’s rings is more about science than pictures. The probe’s cameras captured images 2 days before crossing through the plane of the rings, but not during the closest approach. In future ring-grazing orbits, Cassini will give us some of the best views yet of Saturn’s outer rings and some of the small moons that reside there.
Cassini is about more than just beautiful images though. It’s a vital link in a series of missions that have opened up our understanding of the Solar System we inhabit. Here are some of Cassini’s important discoveries:
The Cassini mission discovered 7 new moons orbiting Saturn. Methone, Pallene and Polydeuces were all discovered in 2004. Daphnis, Anthe, and Aegaeon were discovered between 2005 and 2009. The final moon is currently named S/2009 S 1.
In 2014, NASA reported that yet another new moon may be forming in Saturn’s A ring.
Huygens lands on Titan
The Huygens lander detached from the Cassini orbiter on Christmas Day 2004. It landed on the frigid surface of Saturn’s moon Titan after a 2 1/2 hour descent. The lander transmitted 350 pictures of Titan’s descent to the surface. An unfortunate software error caused the loss of another 350 pictures.
Cassini performed several flybys of the moon Enceladus. The first was in 2005, and the last one was in 2015. The discovery of ice-plumes and a salty liquid ocean were huge for the mission. The presence of liquid water on Enceladus makes it one of the most likely places for microbial life to exist in our Solar System.
Each of Cassini’s final ring-grazing orbits will last one week. Cassini’s final orbit will bring it close to Saturn’s moon Titan. That encounter will change Cassini’s path. Cassini will leap over the rings and make the first of 22 plunges through the gap between Saturn and its rings.
In September 2017, the Cassini probe will finally reach the end of its epic mission. In order to prevent any possible contamination of Saturn’s moons, the probe will make one last glorious plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, transmitting data until it is destroyed.
During the Scientific Revolution, which took place between the 15th and 18th centuries, numerous inventions and discoveries were made that forever changed the way humanity viewed the Universe. And while this explosion in learning owed its existence to countless individuals, a few stand out as being especially worthy of praise and remembrance.
One such individual is Gionvanni Domenico Cassini, also known by his French name Jean-Dominique Cassini. An Italian astronomer, engineer, and astrologer, Cassini made many valuable contributions to modern science. However, it was his discovery of the gaps in Saturn’s rings and four of its largest moons for which he is most remembered, and the reason why the Cassini spacecraft bears his name.
Early Life and Education:
Giovanni Domenico Cassini was born on June 8th, 1625, in the small town of Perinaldo (near Nice, France) to Jacopo Cassini and Julia Crovesi. Educating by Jesuit scientists, he showed an aptitude for mathematics and astronomy from an early age. In 1648, he accepted a position at the observatory at Panzano, near Bologna, where he was employed by a rich amateur astronomer named Marquis Cornelio Malvasia.
During his time at the Panzano Observatory, Cassini was able to complete his education and went on to become the principal chair of astronomy at the University of Bologna by 1650. While there, he made several scientific contributions that would have a lasting mark.
This included the calculation of an important meridian line, which runs along the left aisle of the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna. At 66.8 meters (219 ft) in length, it is one of the largest astronomical instruments in the worl and allowed for measurements that were (at the time) uniquely precise. This meridian also helped to settle the debate about whether or not the Universe was geocentric or heliocentric.
During his time in Italy, Cassini determined the obliquity of the Earth’s ecliptic – aka. it’s axial tilt, which he calculated to be 23° and 29′ at the time. He also studied the effects of refraction and the Solar parallax, worked on planetary theory, and observed the comets of 1664 and 1668.
In recognition of his engineering skills, Pope Clement IX employed Cassini with regard to fortifications, river management and flooding along the Po River in northern Italy. In 1663, Cassini was named superintendent of fortifications and oversaw the fortifying of Urbino. And in 1665, he was named the inspector for the town of Perugia in central Italy.
In 1669, Cassini received an invitation by Louis XIV of France to move to Paris and help establish the Paris Observatory. Upon his arrival, he joined the newly-founded Academie Royale des Sciences (Royal Academy of Sciences), and became the first director of the Paris Observatory, which opened in 1671. He would remain the director of the observatory until his death in 1712.
In 1673, Cassini obtained his French citizenship and in the following year, he married Geneviève de Laistre, the daughter of the lieutenant general of the Comte de Clermont. During his time in France, Cassini spent the majority of his time dedicated to astronomical studies. Using a series of very long air telescopes, he made several discoveries and collaborated with Christiaan Huygens in many projects.
In the 1670s, Cassini began using the triangulation method to create a topographic map of France. It would not be completed until after his death (1789 or 1793), when it was published under the name Carte de Cassini. In addition to being the first topographical map of France, it was the first map to accurately measure longitude and latitude, and showed that the nation was smaller than previously thought.
In 1672, Cassini and his colleague Jean Richer made simultaneous observations of Mars (Cassini from Paris and Richer from French Guiana) and determined its distance to Earth through parallax. This enabled him to refine the dimensions of the Solar System and determine the value of the Astronomical Unit (AU) to within 7% accuracy. He and English astronomer Robert Hooke share credit for the discovery of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter (ca. 1665).
In 1683, Cassini presented an explanation for “zodiacal light” – the faint glow that extends away from the Sun in the ecliptic plane of the sky – which he correctly assumed to be caused by a cloud of small particles surrounding the Sun. He also viewed eight more comets before his death, which appeared in the night sky in 1672, 1677, 1698, 1699, 1702 (two), 1706 and 1707.
In ca. 1690, Cassini was the first to observe differential rotation within Jupiter’s atmosphere. He created improved tables for the positions of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, and discovered the periodic delays between the occultations of Jupiter’s moons and the times calculated. This would be used by Ole Roemer, his colleague at the Paris Observatory, to calculate the velocity of light in 1675.
In 1683, Cassini began the measurement of the arc of the meridian (longitude line) through Paris. From the results, he concluded that Earth is somewhat elongated. While in fact, the Earth is flattened at the poles, the revelation that Earth is not a perfect sphere was groundbreaking.
Cassini also observed and published his observations about the surface markings on Mars, which had been previously observed by Huygens but not published. He also determined the rotation periods of Mars and Jupiter, and his observations of the Moon led to the Cassini Laws, which provide a compact description of the motion of the Moon. These laws state that:
The Moon takes the same amount of time to rotate uniformly about its own axis asit takes to revolve around the Earth. As a consequence, the same face is always pointed towards Earth.
The Moon’s equator is tilted at a constant angle (about 1°32′ of arc) to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun (i.e. the ecliptic)
The point where the lunar orbit passes from south to north on the ecliptic (aka. the ascending node of the lunar orbit) always coincides with the point where the lunar equator passes from north to south on the ecliptic (the descending node of the lunar equator).
Thanks to his leadership, Giovanni Cassini was the first of four successive Paris Observatory directors that bore his name. This would include his son, Jaques Cassini (Cassini II, 1677-1756); his grandson César François Cassini (Cassini III, 1714-84); and his great grandson, Jean Dominique Cassini (Cassini IV, 1748-1845).
Observations of Saturn:
During his time in France, Cassini also made his famous discoveries of many of Saturn’s moons – Iapetus in 1671, Rhea in 167, and Tethys and Dione in 1684. Cassini named these moons Sidera Lodoicea (the stars of Louis), and correctly explained the anomalous variations in brightness to the presence of dark material on one hemisphere (now called Cassini Regio in his honor).
In 1675, Cassini discovered that Saturn’s rings are separated into two parts by a gap, which is now called the “Cassini Division” in his honor. He also theorized that the rings were composed of countless small particles, which was proven to be correct.
Death and Legacy:
After dedicating his life to astronomy and the Paris Observatory, Cassini went blind in 1711 and then died on September 14th, 1712, in Paris. And although he resisted many new theories and ideas that were proposed during his lifetime, his discoveries and contributions place him among the most important astronomers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
As a traditionalist, Cassini initially held the Earth to be the center of the Solar System. In time, he would come to accept the Solar Theory of Nicolaus Copernicus within limits, to the point that he accepted the model proposed by Tycho Brahe. However, he rejected the theory of Johannes Kepler that planets travel in ellipses and proposed hat their paths were certain curved ovals (i.e. Cassinians, or Ovals of Cassini)
Cassini also rejected Newton’s Theory of Gravity, after measurements he conducted which (wrongly) suggested that the Earth was elongated at its poles. After forty years of controversy, Newton’s theory was adopted after the measurements of the French Geodesic Mission (1736-1744) and the Lapponian Expedition in 1737, which showed that the Earth is actually flattened at the poles.
For his lifetime of work, Cassini has been honored in many ways by the astronomical community. Because of his observations of the Moon and Mars, features on their respective surfaces were named after him. Both the Moon and Mars have their own Cassini Crater, and Cassini Regio on Saturn’s moon Iapetus also bears his name.
Then there is Asteroid (24101) Cassini, which was discovered by C.W. Juels at in 1999 using the Fountain Hills Observatory telescope. Most recently, there was the joint NASA-ESA Cassini-Huygens missions which recently finished its mission to study Saturn and its moons. This robotic orbiter and lander mission was named in honor of the two astronomers who were chiefly responsible for discovering Saturn system of moons.
In the end, Cassini’s passion for astronomy and his contributions to the sciences have ensured him a lasting place in the annals of history. In any discussion of the Scientific Revolution and of the influential thinkers who made it happen, his name appears alongside such luminaries as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.
For millennia, human beings stared up at the night sky and were held in awe by the Moon. To many ancient cultures, it represented a deity, and its cycles were accorded divine significance. By the time of Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Moon was considered to be a heavenly body that orbited Earth, much like the other known planets of the day (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).
However, our understanding of moons was revolutionized when in 1610, astronomer Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope to Jupiter and noticed ” four wandering stars” around Jupiter. From this point onward, astronomers have come to understand that planets other than Earth can have their own moons – in some cases, several dozen or more. So just how many moons are there in the Solar System?
In truth, answering that question requires a bit of clarification first. If we are talking about confirmed moons that orbit any of the planets of the Solar System (i.e. those that are consistent with the definition adopted by the IAU in 2006), then we can say that there are currently 207 known moons. If however, we open the floor to “dwarf planets” that have confirmed satellites, the number reached 220.
However, 479 minor-planet moons have also been observed in the Solar System (as of Dec. 2022). This includes the 229 known objects in the asteroid belt with satellites, six Jupiter Trojans, 91 near-Earth objects (two with two satellites each), 31 Mars-crossers, and 84 natural satellites of Trans-Neptunian Objects. And some 150 additional small bodies have been observed within the rings of Saturn. If we include all these, then we can say that the Solar System has 849 known satellites.
Inner Solar System:
The planets of the Inner Solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – are all terrestrial planets, which means that they are composed of silicate rock and minerals that are differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust. For a number of reasons, few satellites exist within this region of the Solar System.
All told, only three natural satellites exist orbiting planetary bodies in the Inner Solar System – Earth and Mars. While scientists theorize that there were moons around Mercury and Venus in the past, it is believed that these moons impacted the surface a long time ago. The reason for this sparseness of satellites has a lot to do with the gravitational influence of the Sun.
Both Mercury and Venus are too close to the Sun to have grabbed onto a passing object or held onto rings of debris in orbit that could have coalesced to form a satellite over time. In Mercury’s case, it is also too weak in terms of its own gravitational pull to grab a satellite in its orbit. Earth and Mars were able to retain satellites, but mainly because they are the outermost of the Inner planets.
Earth has only one natural satellite, which we are familiar with – the Moon. With a mean radius of 1737 km (1,080 mi) and a mass of 7.3477 x 10²² kg, the Moon is 0.273 times the size of Earth and 0.0123 as massive, which is quite large for a satellite. It is also the second densest moon in our Solar System (after Io), with a mean density of 3.3464 g/cm³.
Several theories have been proposed for the formation of the Moon. The prevailing hypothesis today is that the Earth-Moon system formed as a result of an impact between the newly-formed proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object (named Theia) roughly 4.5 billion years ago. This impact would have blasted material from both objects into orbit, where it eventually accreted to form the Moon.
Mars, meanwhile, has two moons – Phobos and Deimos. Like our own Moon, both of the Martian moons are tidally locked to Mars, so they always present the same face to the planet. Compared to our Moon, they are rough and asteroid-like in appearance and also much smaller. Hence the prevailing theory is that they were once asteroids that were kicked out of the Main Belt by Jupiter’s gravity and were then acquired by Mars.
The larger moon is Phobos, whose name comes from the Greek word which means “fear” (i.e. phobia). Phobos measures just 22.7 km (14 mi) across and has an orbit that places it closer to Mars than Deimos. Compared to Earth’s own Moon — which orbits at a distance of 384,403 km (238,857 mi) away from our planet — Phobos orbits at an average distance of only 9,377 km (5,826.5 mi) above Mars.
Mars’ second moon is Deimos, which takes its name from the Greek word for panic. It is even smaller, measuring just 12.6 km (7.83 mi) across, and is also less irregular in shape. Its orbit places it much farther away from Mars, at a distance of 23,460 km (14,577 mi), which means that Deimos takes 30.35 hours to complete an orbit around Mars.
These three moons are the sum total of moons to be found within the Inner Solar System (at least, by the conventional definition). But looking further abroad, we see that this is really just the tip of the iceberg. To think we once believed that the Moon was the only one of its kind!
Outer Solar System:
Beyond the Asteroid Belt (and Frost Line), things become quite different. In this region of the Solar System, every planet has a substantial system of Moons; in the case of Jupiter and Saturn, reaching perhaps even into the hundreds. So far, a total of 213 moons have been confirmed orbiting the Outer Planets, while several hundred more orbit minor bodies and asteroids.
Due to its immense size, mass, and gravitational pull, Jupiter has the most satellites of any planet in the Solar System. At present, the Jovian system includes 80 known moons, though it is estimated that it may have over 200 moons and moonlets (the majority of which are yet to be confirmed and classified).
The four largest Jovian moons are known as the Galilean Moons (named after their discoverer, Galileo Galilei). They include Io, the most volcanically active body in our Solar System; Europa, which is suspected of having a massive subsurface ocean; Ganymede, the largest moon in our Solar System; and Callisto, which is also thought to have a subsurface ocean and features some of the oldest surface material in the Solar System.
Then there’s the Inner Group (or Amalthea group), which is made up of four small moons that have diameters of less than 200 km (124 mi), orbit at radii less than 200,000 km (124,275 mi), and have orbital inclinations of less than half a degree. This group includes the moons of Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe. Along with a number of as-yet-unseen inner moonlets, these moons replenish and maintain Jupiter’s faint ring system.
Jupiter also has an array of Irregular Satellites, which are substantially smaller and have more distant and eccentric orbits than the others. These moons are broken down into families that have similarities in orbit and composition and are believed to be largely the result of collisions from large objects that were captured by Jupiter’s gravity.
Similar to Jupiter, it is estimated that Saturn has at least 150 moons and moonlets, but only 83 of these moons have been given official names or designations. Of these, 57 are less than 10 km (6.2 mi) in diameter, and another 13 are between 10 and 50 km (6.2 to 31 mi) in diameter. However, some of its inner and outer moons are rather large, ranging from 250 to over 5000 km (155 to 3100 mi)
Traditionally, most of Saturn’s moons have been named after the Titans of Greek mythology and are grouped based on their size, orbits, and proximity to Saturn. The innermost moons and regular moons all have small orbital inclinations and eccentricities and prograde orbits. Meanwhile, the irregular moons in the outermost regions have orbital radii of millions of kilometers, orbital periods lasting several years, and move in retrograde orbits.
The Inner Large Moons, which orbit within the E Ring, include the larger satellites MimasEnceladus, Tethys, and Dione. These moons are all composed primarily of water ice and are believed to be differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle and crust. The Large Outer Moons, which orbit outside of Saturn’s E Ring, are similar in composition to the Inner Moons – i.e. composed primarily of water ice, and rock.
At 5,150 km (3,200 mi) in diameter and 1,350×1020 kg in mass, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and comprises more than 96% of the mass in orbit around the planet. Titan is also the only large moon to have its own atmosphere, which is cold, dense, and composed primarily of nitrogen with a small fraction of methane. Scientists have also noted the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, as well as methane ice crystals.
The surface of Titan, which is difficult to observe due to persistent atmospheric haze, shows only a few impact craters, evidence of cryo-volcanoes, and longitudinal dune fields that were apparently shaped by tidal winds. Titan is also the only body in the Solar System aside from Earth to have bodies of liquid on its surface. These take the form of methane–ethane lakes in Titan’s north and south polar regions.
Uranus has 27 known satellites, which are divided into the categories of larger moons, inner moons, and irregular moons (similar to other gas giants). The largest moons of Uranus are, in order of size, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Oberon, and Titania. These moons range in diameter and mass from 472 km (293 mi) and 6.7×1019 kg for Miranda to 1578 km (980.5 mi) and 3.5×1021 kg for Titania. Each of these moons is particularly dark, with low bond and geometric albedos. Ariel is the brightest, while Umbriel is the darkest.
All of the large moons of Uranus are believed to have formed in the accretion disc, which existed around Uranus for some time after its formation or resulted from the large impact suffered by Uranus early in its history. Each one is comprised of roughly equal amounts of rock and ice, except for Miranda, which is made primarily of ice.
The ice component may include ammonia and carbon dioxide, while the rocky material is believed to be composed of carbonaceous material, including organic compounds (similar to asteroids and comets). Their compositions are believed to be differentiated, with an icy mantle surrounding a rocky core.
Neptune has 14 known satellites, all but one of which are named after Greek and Roman deities of the sea (except for S/2004 N 1, which is currently unnamed). These moons are divided into two groups – the regular and irregular moons – based on their orbit and proximity to Neptune. Neptune’s Regular Moons – Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, S/2004 N 1, and Proteus – are those that are closest to the planet and which follow circular, prograde orbits that lie in the planet’s equatorial plane.
Neptune’s irregular moons consist of the planet’s remaining satellites (including Triton). They generally follow inclined eccentric and often retrograde orbits far from Neptune. The only exception is Triton, which orbits close to the planet, following a circular orbit, though retrograde and inclined.
In order of their distance from the planet, the irregular moons are Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Neso, and Psamathe – a group that includes both prograde and retrograde objects. With the exception of Triton and Nereid, Neptune’s irregular moons are similar to those of other giant planets and are believed to have been gravitationally captured by Neptune.
With a mean diameter of around 2,700 km (1,678 mi) and a mass of 21,4080 ± 520×1017 kg, Triton is the largest of Neptune’s moons and the only one large enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. is spherical in shape). At a distance of 354,759 km (220,437 mi) from Neptune, it also sits between the planet’s inner and outer moons.
These moons make up the lion’s share of natural satellites found in the Solar System. However, thanks to ongoing exploration and improvements made in our instrumentation, satellites are being discovered in orbit around minor bodies as well.
Dwarf Planets and Other Bodies:
As already noted, there are several dwarf planets, TNOs, and other bodies in the Solar System that also have their own moons. These consist mainly of the natural satellites that have been confirmed orbiting Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. With five orbiting satellites, Pluto has the most confirmed moons (though that may change with further observation).
The largest and closest in orbit to Pluto is Charon. This moon was first identified in 1978 by astronomer James Christy using photographic plates from the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) in Washington, D.C. Beyond Charon lies the four other circumbinary moons – Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, respectively.
Nix and Hydra were discovered simultaneously in 2005 by the Pluto Companion Search Team using the Hubble Space Telescope. The same team discovered Kerberos in 2011. The fifth and final satellite, Styx, was discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2012 while capturing images of Pluto and Charon.
Charon, Styx, and Kerberos are all massive enough to have collapsed into a spheroid shape under their own gravity. Nix and Hydra, meanwhile, are oblong in shape. The Pluto-Charon system is unusual since it is one of the few systems in the Solar System whose barycenter lies above the primary’s surface. In short, Pluto and Charon orbit each other, causing some scientists to claim that it is a “double-dwarf system” instead of a dwarf planet and an orbiting moon.
In addition, it is unusual in that each body is tidally locked to the other. Charon and Pluto always present the same face to each other, and from any position on either body, the other is always at the same position in the sky or always obscured. This also means that the rotation period of each is equal to the time it takes the entire system to rotate around its common center of gravity.
In 2007, observations by the Gemini Observatory of patches of ammonia hydrates and water crystals on the surface of Charon suggested the presence of active cryo-geysers. This would seem to indicate that Pluto has a warm subsurface ocean and that the core is geologically active. Pluto’s moons are believed to have been formed by a collision between Pluto and a similar-sized body early in the history of the Solar System. The collision released material that consolidated into the moons around Pluto.
Coming in second is Haumea, which has two known moons – Hi’iaka and Namaka – which are named after the daughters of the Hawaiian goddess. Both were discovered in 2005 by Brown’s team while conducting observations of Haumea at the W.M. Keck Observatory. Hi’iaka, which was initially nicknamed “Rudolph” by the Caltech team, was discovered on January 26th, 2005.
It is the outer, the larger (at roughly 310 km (mi) in diameter), and brighter of the two, and orbits Haumea in a nearly circular path every 49 days. Infrared observations indicate that its surface is almost entirely covered by pure crystalline water ice. Because of this, Brown and his team have speculated that the moon is a fragment of Haumea that broke off during a collision.
Namaka, the smaller and innermost of the two, was discovered on June 30th, 2005, and nicknamed “Blitzen”. It is a tenth the mass of Hi‘iaka and orbits Haumea in 18 days in a highly elliptical orbit. Both moons circle Haumea is highly eccentric orbits. No estimates have been made yet as to their mass.
Eris has one moon called Dysnomia, named after the daughter of Eris in Greek mythology, and was first observed on September 10th, 2005 – a few months after the discovery of Eris. The moon was spotted by a team using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, who were busy carrying out observations of the four brightest TNOs (Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, and Eris) at the time.
In April 2016, observations using the Hubble Space Telescope‘s Wide Field Camera 3 revealed that Makemake had a natural satellite – which was designated S/2015 (136472) 1 (nicknamed MK 2 by the discovery team). It is estimated to be 175 km (110 mi) km in diameter and has a semi-major axis at least 21,000 km (13,000 mi) from Makemake.
Largest and Smallest Moons:
The title of “largest moon in the Solar System” goes to Ganymede, which measures 5,262.4 kilometers (3,270 mi) in diameter. This not only makes it larger than Earth’s Moon but larger even than the planet Mercury – though it has only half of Mercury’s mass. As for the smallest satellite, that is a tie between S/2003 J 9 and S/2003 J 12. These two satellites, both of which orbit Jupiter, measure about 1 km (0.6 mi) in diameter.
An important thing to note when discussing the number of known moons in the Solar System is that the key word here is “known”. With every passing year, more satellites are being confirmed, and the vast majority of those we now know about were only discovered in the past few decades. As our exploration efforts continue and our instruments improve, we may find that there are hundreds more lurking around out there!