You Gotta Know These Moons
Earth’s moon: The moon, also called Luna, is the fifth largest satellite in the solar system, the largest relative to the size of the planet it orbits, and the second densest. The USSR’s Luna unmanned spacecraft first reached the moon in 1959, and Apollo 8 became the first manned mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty guarantees the rights of all nations to explore the moon for peaceful purposes.
The flat dark lunar plains are called maria (singular: mare) and are mainly concentrated on the near side of the moon. The most famous one is Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 first landed on the moon in 1969. The Apollo program landed on the moon five more times.
Phobos: Both Phobos (“fear”) and Mars’ smaller moon Deimos (“dread”) were discovered by Asaph Hall III in 1877. At just 3700 miles above the Martian surface, Phobos orbits more closely to its planet than any other moon in the Solar System. Because it orbits Mars faster than Mars rotates, each day it appears (from the Martian surface) to set twice in the east each day. Geological features on Phobos, including the Stickney Crater, are primarily named for either astronomers (Stickney was the maiden name of Asaph Hall’s wife) or characters from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In 1971 the US’s Mariner IX became the first spacecraft to provide close-up photos of Phobos.
Deimos: One seventh the mass of Phobos and further away from the Martian surface, Deimos was found by Asaph Hall at the US Naval Observatory six days before he discovered Phobos. Its largest and only named craters are Swift and Voltaire; Deimos’s surface doesn’t appear as rough as Phobos’s because regolith has filled in some of the craters. A still-controversial and unproven hypothesis holds that Deimos (and possibly Phobos as well) were asteroids perturbed out of their orbit by Jupiter and then captured by the gravity of Mars.
Io is the innermost of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter (the moons discovered by Galileo), the fourth-largest moon in the solar system, the densest moon, and the most geologically active body in the solar system due to its more than 400 volcanoes. Io’s features are named for characters from the Io story in Greek mythology; fire, volcano, and thunder deities from other mythologies; and characters from Dante’s Inferno. Io plays a significant role in shaping Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Pioneer 10 first passed by Io in December 1973.
Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system and the only one known to have its own magnetosphere. The third of the Galilean satellites, Ganymede was also first photographed close-up by Pioneer 10 in 1973. Galileo made six flybys of Ganymede between 1996 and 2000. Based on a suggestion from Simon Marius, Ganymede (along with many of the Jovian satellites) is named for one of Jupiter’s lovers in Roman mythology; Ganymede is the only such moon named for a male figure. Many of Ganymede’s features, including the Enki Catena, are given names from Egyptian and Babylonian mythology, although its largest dark plain is Galileo Regio. Ganymede is scheduled to be orbited by the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), currently slated for a 2022 launch.
Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and the second largest in the solar system. Until Voyager 1 visited in 1980, it was thought to be larger than Ganymede. It is the only known satellite with a dense atmosphere—so dense that it makes observation of surface features nearly impossible except from close up—and also the only known satellite for which there is evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid. Discovered in 1655 by Christiaan Huygens, it was visited by the Cassini-Huygens mission in 2004. Titan’s albedo features, such as the highly reflective area Xanadu, are named for sacred or enchanted places from world literature and mythology. Because of its nitrogen-rich atmosphere and the presence of surface liquid, Titan is often thought to be the most likely place in the solar system for microbial life to exist outside of Earth.
Iapetus [“eye”-AA-pih-tuss] is Saturn’s third-largest moon after Titan and Rhea and, like them, was discovered by Giovanni Cassini in 1671. It was named based upon a suggestion from John Herschel (son of the discoverer of Uranus, William Herschel) for the Titans of Greek mythology, the brothers and sisters of Cronos (Saturn). Iapetus has a distinctive two-tone coloration; part of it is red-brown, while part is bright gray. Features on Iapetus are named for people and places from the French Song of Roland, including Charlemagne Crater and the bright northern region Roncevaux Terra. In 2004 the Cassini orbiter found an equatorial ridge running over 800 miles long and 10 miles wide that gives Iapetus some of the highest peaks in the solar system; its existence has not yet been explained.
Titania and Oberon: Uranus’s largest moons, Titania and Oberon, are named for characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Other Uranian moons are named for characters from either Shakespeare or Alexander Pope.) They were discovered on the same day in 1787 by William Herschel, who also discovered Uranus itself in 1781. In 1986 Voyager 2 became the only spacecraft to date to visit the Uranian moons. Because Uranus orbits the sun almost on its side and Titania and Oberon orbit Uranus in the same plane as its equator, the moons have extreme seasons: Titania’s poles spend over 42 years in nonstop sunlight followed by 42 years of darkness. Most of Titania’s features are named for settings or female characters from Shakespeare—its largest crater is Gertrude Crater, after Hamlet’s mother—while most of Oberon’s are named after settings or male characters from Shakespeare. However, Oberon’s largest feature is Mommur Chasma, which is named from a French epic poem.
Triton: The largest moon of Neptune and the only large moon with a retrograde orbit (that is, an orbit opposite to the rotation of its planet), Triton is the seventh-largest moon in the solar system and is thought to have been captured from the Kuiper Belt. For over 100 years after its 1846 discovery, Triton was thought to be Neptune’s only moon; Nereid wasn’t discovered until 1949 (there are 13 known satellites now). Triton is geologically active and has geysers that are assumed to erupt nitrogen. Because of the activity, impact craters on Triton are relatively scarce; most of the larger craters were formed by volcanic activity. Triton orbits around Neptune in almost a perfect circle. Voyager 2 visited Triton in 1989 and is the only space probe to have done so (and none are currently planned). Much of Triton’s western hemisphere consists of an unexplained series of fissures and depressions sometimes called “cantaloupe terrain.” Triton’s features are named after various water spirits, monsters, or sacred waters from mythology.
Charon: The largest satellite of the dwarf planet Pluto, Charon wasn’t discovered until 1978. (As of 2013, Pluto has five known moons, the last two discovered in 2011 and 2012.) Unlike Pluto, which is covered with nitrogen and methane ices, Charon appears to be covered in water ice and may also have active cryo-geysers. Because the center of mass of the Pluto-Charon system lies outside of either one, Charon doesn’t truly orbit Pluto; when Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006, an argument was made (but not accepted) to classify Pluto-Charon as a binary system. The IAU still considers Charon, which is roughly half the size but has only 11% the mass of Pluto, to be a satellite. The New Horizons mission is scheduled to visit Charon and Pluto in 2015.
Charon was named by its discoverer, James Christy of the Flagstaff Naval Observatory; the IAU approved the name in 1985. Internationally Charon is pronounced like the Greek mythological figure with a hard [k] sound; however, Christy’s choice of name was inspired by his wife Charlene, so NASA and New Horizons personnel use a soft [sh] sound.
This article was contributed by NAQT member and writer Eric Bell.