Natural satellites: Wikis


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Selected moons, with the Earth to scale. Nineteen moons are large enough to be round, and one, Titan, has a substantial atmosphere.

A natural satellite or moon is a celestial body that orbits a planet or smaller body, which is called the primary. Technically, the term natural satellite could refer to a planet orbiting a star, or a dwarf galaxy orbiting a major galaxy, but it is normally synonymous with moon and used to identify non-artificial satellites of planets, dwarf planets, and minor planets.

As of July 2009, 336 bodies are formally classified as moons. They include 168 orbiting six of the eight planets, 6 orbiting three of the five dwarf planets, 104 asteroid moons, and 58 satellites of Trans-Neptunian objects, some of which will likely turn out to be dwarf planets. Some 150 additional small bodies were observed within Saturn's ring system, but they were not tracked long enough to establish orbits. Planets around other stars are likely to have natural satellites as well, although none have been observed.

The large gas giants have extensive systems of moons, including half a dozen comparable in size to Earth's moon: the four Galilean moons, Saturn's Titan, and Neptune's Triton. Saturn has an additional six mid-sized moons massive enough to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium, and Uranus has five. Of the inner planets, Mercury and Venus have no moons at all; Earth has one large moon, known as the Moon; and Mars has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos. It has been suggested that a few moons, notably Europa, one of Jupiter's Galilean moons, may harbour life, though there is currently no direct evidence to support this claim.

Among the dwarf planets, Ceres has no moons (though many objects in the asteroid belt do). Pluto has three known satellites, the rather large Charon and the smaller Nix and Hydra. Haumea has two moons, and Eris has one. The Pluto-Charon system is unusual in that the center of mass lies in open space between the two, a characteristic of a double planet system.

Two moons: Saturn's moon Dione occults Enceladus



The natural satellites orbiting relatively close to the planet on prograde orbits (regular satellites) are generally believed to have been formed out of the same collapsing region of the protoplanetary disk that created its primary. In contrast, irregular satellites (generally orbiting on distant, inclined, eccentric and/or retrograde orbits) are thought to be captured asteroids possibly further fragmented by collisions. The Earth's Moon[1] and possibly Charon[2] are exceptions among large bodies in that they are believed to have originated by the collision of two large proto-planetary objects (see the giant impact hypothesis). The material that would have been placed in orbit around the central body is predicted to have reaccreted to form one or more orbiting moons. As opposed to planetary-sized bodies, asteroid moons are thought to commonly form by this process. Triton is another exception, which although large and in a close, circular orbit, is thought to be a captured dwarf planet.

Geological activity

Of the nineteen known moons massive enough to have lapsed into hydrostatic equilibrium, several remain geologically active today. Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System, while Europa, Enceladus, Titan and Triton display evidence of ongoing tectonic activity and cryovolcanism. In the first three cases, the geological activity is powered by the tidal heating resulting from having eccentric orbits close to their gas giant primaries. (This mechanism would have also operated on Triton in the past, before its orbit was circularized.) Many other moons, such as Earth's Moon, Ganymede, Tethys and Miranda, show evidence of past geological activity, resulting from energy sources such as the decay of their primordial radioisotopes, greater past orbital eccentricities (due in some cases to past orbital resonances), or the differentiation or freezing of their interiors. Enceladus and Triton both have active features resembling geysers, although in the case of Triton solar heating appears to provide the energy. Titan and Triton have significant atmospheres; Titan also has methane lakes, and presumably rain. Four of the largest moons, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Titan, are thought to have subsurface oceans of liquid water, while smaller Enceladus may have localized subsurface water.

Orbital characteristics

Satellite orbits are called regular or prograde if they are in the same direction as the planet's rotation otherwise they are called irregular or retrograde (The term irregular can also refer to the shape of a satellite). Most of the major moons in the solar system have regular orbits (Triton being the exception) while most of the small moons have irregular orbits.[3]


Tidal locking

The regular natural satellites in the solar system are tidally locked to their primaries, meaning that the same side of the moon always faces the planet. The only known exception is Saturn's moon Hyperion, which rotates chaotically because of the gravitational influence of Titan.

In contrast, the outer moons of the gas giants (irregular satellites) are too far away to have become locked. For example, Jupiter's moon Himalia, Saturn's moon Phoebe, and Neptune's moon Nereid have rotation period in the range of ten hours, while their orbital periods are hundreds of days.

Satellites of satellites

Artist impression of Rhea's rings

No moons of moons (natural satellites that orbit the natural satellite of another body) are known. In most cases, the tidal effects of the primary would make such a system unstable.

However, calculations performed after the recent detection [4] of a possible ring system around Saturn's moon Rhea indicate that Rhean orbits would be stable. Furthermore, the suspected rings are thought to be narrow,[5] a phenomenon normally associated with shepherd moons.

Trojan satellites

Two moons are known to have small companions at their L4 and L5 Lagrangian points, sixty degrees ahead and behind the body in its orbit. These companions are called Trojan moons, as their orbits are analogous to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter. The Trojan moons are Telesto and Calypso, which are the leading and following companions respectively of Tethys; and Helene and Polydeuces, the leading and following companions of Dione.

Asteroid satellites

The discovery of 243 Ida's moon Dactyl in the early 1990s confirmed that some asteroids have moons; indeed, 87 Sylvia has two. Some, such as 90 Antiope, are double asteroids with two comparably sized components.

Natural satellites of the Solar System

The relative masses of the moons of the Solar system. Mimas, Enceladus, and Miranda are too small to be visible at this scale. All the irregularly shaped moons, even added together, would also be too small to be visible.

The largest natural satellites in the Solar System (those bigger than about 3000 km across) are Earth's moon, Jupiter's Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), Saturn's moon Titan, and Neptune's captured moon Triton. For smaller moons see the articles on the appropriate planet. The moons of the various planets there are also over 80 known moons of the dwarf planets, asteroids and other small solar system bodies. Some studies estimate that up to 15% of all trans-Neptunian objects could have satellites.

The following is a comparative table classifying the moons of the solar system by diameter. The column on the right includes some notable planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, and Trans-Neptunian Objects for comparison. The moons of the planets are named after mythological figures. These are predominately Greek, except for the Uranian moons, which are named after Shakespearean characters. The nineteen bodies massive enough to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium are in bold in the chart below and labeled on the chart at right, though a few of the smaller ones are not visible at the scale of the chart. Minor planets suspected but not proven to have achieved a hydrostatic equilibrium are italicized in the table below.

Mean diameter
Satellites of planets Dwarf planet satellites Satellites of
for comparison
Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto Haumea Eris
6000-8000 Mars
4000-6000 Ganymede
Titan Mercury
3000-4000 The Moon Io
2000-3000 Triton Eris
1500-2000 Rhea Titania
1000-1500 Iapetus
Charon 90377 Sedna
90482 Orcus
50000 Quaoar
2007 OR10
500-1000 Enceladus Ceres
20000 Varuna
28978 Ixion
2 Pallas4 Vesta
many more TNOs
250-500 Mimas
Miranda Proteus
Hiʻiaka S/2005 (79360) 1
90482 Orcus I "Vanth"
10 Hygiea
511 Davida
704 Interamnia
87 Sylvia
and many others
100-250 Amalthea
Namaka Dysnomia 65489 Ceto I Phorcys
617 Patroclus I Menoetius
24 more moons of TNO
3 Juno
1992 QB1
5 Astraea
42355 Typhon
and many others
50-100 Elara
50000 Quaoar I Weywot
90 Antiope I
42355 Typhon I Echidna
58534 Logos I Zoe
5 more moons of TNOs
90 Antiope I
58534 Logos
and many others
25-50 Carme
22 Kalliope I Linus many
10-25 Phobos
762 Pulcova I
87 Sylvia I Romulus
624 Hektor I
(45) Eugenia I Petit-Prince
121 Hermione I
283 Emma I
1313 Berna I
107 Camilla I
433 Eros
1313 Berna
and many others
less than 10 at least 47 at least 36 87 Sylvia I Remus many
  Names in bold are either known to be in hydrostatic equilibrium or have an absolute magnitude less than 1. Names in italics are suspected to be in equilibrium.


The first known natural satellite was the Moon (luna in Latin). Until the discovery of the Galilean satellites in 1610, however, there was no opportunity for referring to such objects as a class. Galileo chose to refer to his discoveries as Planetæ ("planets"), but later discoverers chose other terms to distinguish them from the objects they orbited.

Christiaan Huygens, the discoverer of Titan, was the first to use the term moon for such objects, calling Titan Luna Saturni or Luna Saturnia – "Saturn's moon" or "The Saturnian moon", because it stood in the same relation to Saturn as the Moon did to the Earth.

The first to use of the term satellite to describe orbiting bodies was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in his pamphlet Narratio de Observatis a se quatuor Iovis sattelitibus erronibus ("Narration About Four Satellites of Jupiter Observed") in 1610. He derived the term from the Latin word satelles, meaning "guard", "attendant", or "companion", because the satellites accompanied their primary planet in their journey through the heavens.

As additional moons of Saturn were discovered the term "moon" was abandoned. Giovanni Domenico Cassini sometimes referred to his discoveries as planètes in French, but more often as satellites.

The term satellite thus became the normal one for referring to an object orbiting a planet, as it avoided the ambiguity of "moon". In 1957, however, the launching of the artificial object Sputnik created a need for new terminology. The terms man-made satellite or artificial moon were very quickly abandoned in favor of the simpler satellite, and as a consequence, the term has become linked primarily with artificial objects flown in space – including, sometimes, even those which are not in orbit around a planet.

Because of this shift in meaning, the term moon, which had continued to be used in a generic sense in works of popular science and in fiction, has regained respectability and is now used interchangeably with satellite, even in scientific articles. When it is necessary to avoid both the ambiguity of confusion with the Earth's moon on the one hand, and artificial satellites on the other, the term natural satellite (using "natural" in a sense opposed to "artificial") is used.

The definition of a moon

Comparison of Earth and the Moon
Comparison of Jupiter's Great Red Spot and Jupiter's four largest moons. Compared to Earth/Luna and Pluto/Charon, there is a much greater difference in mass.

There is not an established lower limit on what is considered a moon. Every body with an identified orbit, some as small as a kilometer across, has been identified as a moon, though objects a tenth that size within Saturn's rings, which have not been directly observed, have been called moonlets. Small asteroid moons, such as Dactyl, have also been called moonlets.

The upper limit is also vague. When the masses of two orbiting bodies are similar enough that one cannot be said to orbit the other, they are described as a double body rather than primary and satellite. Asteroids such as 90 Antiope are considered double asteroids, but they have not forced a clear definition of what constitutes a moon. Some authors consider the Pluto-Charon system to be a double (dwarf) planet. The most common dividing line on what is considered a moon rests upon whether the barycentre is below the surface of the larger body, though this is somewhat arbitrary, as it relies on distance as well as relative mass.

See also

Moons of planets
Moons of dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies

Notes and references

  1. ^ R. Canup and E. Asphaug (2001). "Origin of the Moon in a giant impact near the end of the Earth's formation". Nature 412: 708–712. doi:10.1038/35089010. 
  2. ^ S. Stern, H. Weaver, A. Steffl, M. Mutchler, W. Merline, M. Buie, E. Young, L. Young, and J. Spencer (2006). "A giant impact origin for Pluto's small moons and satellite multiplicity in the Kuiper belt". Nature 439: 946–949. doi:10.1038/nature04548. 
  3. ^ Encyclopedia of the solar system, page 366, Academic Press, 2007, Lucy-Ann Adams McFadden, Paul Robert Weissman, Torrence V. Johnson
  4. ^ "The Dust Halo of Saturn's Largest Icy Moon, Rhea -- Jones et al. 319 (5868): 1380 -- Science". Retrieved 2008-03-06. 
  5. ^ "Saturn satellite reveals first moon rings - 06 March 2008 - New Scientist". Retrieved 2008-03-06. 

External links

Jupiter's moons

Saturn's moons

All moons


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