Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo

12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced

The four jovian planets are accompanied by impressive systems of moons and rings. Over 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 Galilean 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. Various lines of evidence indicate that Europa has a global ocean of liquid water under a thick ice crust. Many scientists think that Europa may offer the most favorable environment in the solar system to search for life.

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 and interesting than could have been imagined before the New Horizons mission.

12.5 Planetary Rings (and Enceladus)

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. One Saturn moon, Enceladus, is today erupting geysers of water to maintain the tenuous E Ring, which is composed of very small ice crystals. The rings of Uranus are narrow ribbons separated by wide gaps and contain much less mass. Neptune’s rings are similar but contain even less material. Much of the complex structure of the rings is due to waves and resonances induced by moons within the rings or orbiting outside them. The origin and age of each of these ring systems is still a mystery.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Jan 23, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.