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Physics LibreTexts

12: Rings, Moons, and Pluto

All four giant planets are accompanied by moons that orbit about them like planets in a miniature solar system. Nearly 200 moons are known in the outer solar system—too many to name individually or discuss in any detail. Astronomers anticipate that additional small moons await future discovery. We have also discovered a fascinating variety of rings around each of the jovian planets.

Before the Voyager missions, even the largest of the outer-planet moons were mere points of light in our telescopes. Then, in less than a decade, we had close-up images, and these moons became individual worlds for us, each with unique features and peculiarities. The Galileo mission added greatly to our knowledge of the moons of Jupiter, and the Cassini mission has done the same for the Saturn system. In 2015, the NASA New Horizons spacecraft completed the initial exploration of the “classical” planets in the solar system with its flyby of Pluto and its moons. We include Pluto here because in some ways it resembles some of the larger moons in the outer solar system. Each new spacecraft mission has revealed many surprises, as the objects in the outer solar system are much more varied and geologically active than scientists had anticipated.

  • 12.1: Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    The four jovian planets are accompanied by impressive systems of moons and rings. Nearly 200 moons have been discovered in the outer solar system. Of the four ring systems, Saturn’s is the largest and is composed primarily of water ice; in contrast, Uranus and Neptune have narrow rings of dark material, and Jupiter has a tenuous ring of dust.
  • 12.2: The Gailean Moons of Jupiter
    Jupiter’s largest moons are Ganymede and Callisto, both low-density objects that are composed of more than half water ice. Callisto has an ancient cratered surface, while Ganymede shows evidence of extensive tectonic and volcanic activity, persisting until perhaps a billion years ago. Io and Europa are denser and smaller, each about the size of our Moon. Io is the most volcanically active object in the solar system.
  • 12.3: Titan and Triton
    Saturn’s moon Titan has an atmosphere that is thicker than that of Earth. There are lakes and rivers of liquid hydrocarbons, and evidence of a cycle of evaporation, condensation, and return to the surface that is similar to the water cycle on Earth (but with liquid methane and ethane). The Cassini-Huygens lander set down on Titan and showed a scene with boulders, made of water ice, frozen harder than rock. Neptune’s cold moon Triton has a very thin atmosphere and nitrogen gas geysers.
  • 12.4: Pluto and Charon
    Pluto and Charon have been revealed by the New Horizons spacecraft to be two of the most fascinating objects in the outer solar system. Pluto is small (a dwarf planet) but also surprisingly active, with contrasting areas of dark cratered terrain, light-colored basins of nitrogen ice, and mountains of frozen water that may be floating in the nitrogen ice. Even Pluto’s largest moon Charon shows evidence of geological activity. Both Pluto and Charon turn out to be far more dynamic.
  • 12.5: Planetary Rings
    Rings are composed of vast numbers of individual particles orbiting so close to a planet that its gravitational forces could have broken larger pieces apart or kept small pieces from gathering together. Saturn’s rings are broad, flat, and nearly continuous, except for a handful of gaps. The particles are mostly water ice, with typical dimensions of a few centimeters. Enceladus is today erupting geysers of water to maintain the tenuous E Ring, which is composed of very small ice crystals.
  • 12.E: Rings, Moons, and Pluto (Exercises)

Thumbnail: This montage, assembled from individual Galileo and Voyager images, shows a “family portrait” of Jupiter (with its giant red spot) and its four large moons. From top to bottom, we see Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. The colors are exaggerated by image processing to emphasize contrasts. (credit: modification of work by NASA).