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.
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.
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.
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.
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.