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Jupiter’s moon Ganymede

Jupiter's moon Ganymede

Though Chinese astronomical records claim that astronomer Gan De may have spotted a moon of Jupiter (probably Ganymede) with the naked eye as early as 365 BCE, Galileo Galilei is credited with making the first recorded observation of Ganymede on January 7th, 1610 using his telescope. Together with Io, Europa and Callisto, he named them the “Medicean Stars” at the time – after his patron, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de’ Medici.

With a mean radius of 2634.1 ± 0.3 kilometers (the equivalent of 0.413 Earths), Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system and is even larger than the planet Mercury. However, with a mass of 1.4819 x 1023 kg (the equivalent of 0.025 Earths), it is only half as massive. This is due to Ganymede’s composition, which consists of water ice and silicate rock (see below).

With an average density of 1.936 g/cm3, Ganymede is most likely composed of equal parts rocky material and water ice. It is estimated that water ice constitutes 46–50% of the moon’s mass (slightly lower than that of Callisto) with the possibility of some additional volatile ices such as ammonia being present. Ganymede’s surface has an albedo of about 43%, which suggests that water ice makes up a mass fraction of 50-90% the surface.

Scientists also believe that Ganymede has a thick ocean nestled between two layers of ice – a tetragonal layer between it and the core and a hexagonal layer above it. The presence of this ocean has been confirmed by readings taken by orbiters and through studies of how Ganymede’s aurora behaves. In short, the moon’s auroras are affected by Ganymede’s magnetic field, which in turn is affected by the presence of a large, subsurface salt-water ocean.

There is some speculation on the potential habitability of Ganymede’s ocean. An analysis published in 2014, taking into account the realistic thermodynamics for water and effects of salt, suggests that Ganymede might have a stack of several ocean layers separated by different phases of ice, with the lowest liquid layer adjacent to the rocky mantle below.

Several probes flying by or orbiting Jupiter have explored Ganymede more closely, including four flybys in the 1970s, and multiple passes in the 1990s to 2000s. The first approaches were conducted by the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes, which approached the moon in 1973 and 1974, respectively. These missions returned more specific information on its physical characteristics and resolved features to 400 km (250 mi) on its surface.

Ganymede is considered a possible candidate for human settlement – and even terraforming – due to the many advantages it presents. For one, as Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede has a gravitational force of 1.428 m/s2 (the equivalent of 0.146 g) which is comparable to Earth’s Moon. Sufficient enough to limit the effects of muscle and bone degeneration, this lower gravity also means that the moon has a lower escape velocity – which means it would take considerably less fuel for rockets to take off from the surface.

Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Credit: NASA

In 1610, Galileo Galilei looked up at the night sky through a telescope of his own design. Spotting Jupiter, he noted the presence of several “luminous objects” surrounding it, which he initially took for stars. In time, he would notice that these “stars” were orbiting the planet, and realized that they were in fact Jupiter’s moons – which would come to be named Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Of these, Ganymede is the largest, and boasts many fascinating characteristics. In addition to being the largest moon in the solar system, it is also larger than even the planet Mercury. It is the only satellite in the solar system known to possess a magnetosphere, has a thin oxygen atmosphere, and (much like its fellow-moons, Europa and Callisto) is believed to have an interior ocean.

Discovery and Naming:

Though Chinese astronomical records claim that astronomer Gan De may have spotted a moon of Jupiter (probably Ganymede) with the naked eye as early as 365 BCE, Galileo Galilei is credited with making the first recorded observation of Ganymede on January 7th, 1610 using his telescope.

Together with Io, Europa and Callisto, he named them the “Medicean Stars” at the time – after his patron, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de’ Medici. Simon Marius, a German astronomer and contemporary of Galileo’s who claimed to have independently discovered Ganymede, suggested alternative names at the behest of Johannes Kepler. However, the names of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – which were all taken from classical mythology – would not come to formally be adopted until the 20th century. Prior to this, the Galilean Moons were named Jupiter I through IV based on their proximity to the planet (with Ganymede designated as Jupiter III). Following the discovery of the moons […]

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