The Largest Moon
Ganymede is a moon of Jupiter and the largest moon in the Solar System. Completing an orbit in roughly seven days, it is the seventh moon and third Galilean moon from Jupiter. Ganymede participates in a 1:2:4 orbital resonance with the moons Europa and Io, respectively. It is larger in diameter than the planet Mercury but has only about half its mass. It has the highest mass of all planetary satellites with 2.01 times the mass of the Earth’s moon.
Ganymede is composed primarily of silicate rock and water ice. It is a fully differentiated body with an iron-rich, liquid core. A saltwater ocean is believed to exist nearly 200 km below Ganymede’s surface, sandwiched between layers of ice. Its surface comprises two main types of terrain. Dark regions, saturated with impact craters and dated to four billion years ago, cover about a third of the satellite. Lighter regions, crosscut by extensive grooves and ridges and only slightly less ancient, cover the remainder. The cause of the light terrain’s disrupted geology is not fully known, but was likely the result of tectonic activity brought about by tidal heating.
Ganymede is the only satellite in the Solar System known to possess a magnetosphere, likely created through convection within the liquid iron core. The meager magnetosphere is buried within Jupiter’s much larger magnetic field and connected to it through open field lines. The satellite has a thin oxygen atmosphere that includes O, O2, and possibly O3 (ozone). Atomic hydrogen is a minor atmospheric constituent. Whether the satellite has an ionosphere to correspond to its atmosphere is unresolved.
Ganymede’s discovery is credited to Galileo Galilei, who observed it in 1610. The satellite’s name was soon suggested by astronomer Simon Marius, for the mythological Ganymede, cupbearer of the Greek gods and Zeus’s beloved. Beginning with Pioneer 10, spacecraft have been able to examine Ganymede closely. The Voyager probes refined measurements of its size, while the Galileo craft discovered its underground ocean and magnetic field. A new mission to Jupiter’s icy moons, the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) is proposed for a launch in 2020.
Layers of Ganymede
Ganymede appears to be fully differentiated, with an internal structure consisting of an iron-sulfide–iron core, a silicate mantle and outer layers of water ice and liquid water. The precise thicknesses of the different layers in the interior of Ganymede depend on the assumed composition of silicates (fraction of olivine and pyroxene) and amount of sulfur in the core. Ganymede has the lowest moment of inertia factor, 0.31, among the solid Solar System bodies. This is a consequence of its substantial water content and fully differentiated interior.
In the 1970s, NASA scientists first suspected that Ganymede has a thick ocean between two layers of ice, one on the surface and one beneath a liquid ocean and atop the rocky mantle.
In the 1990s, NASA’s Galileo mission flew by Ganymede, confirming the moon’s sub-surface 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.
Water–rock contact may be an important factor in the origin of life. The analysis also notes that the extreme depths involved (~800 km to the rocky “seafloor”) mean that temperatures at the bottom of a convective (adiabatic) ocean can be up to 40 K higher than those at the ice–water interface. In March 2015, scientists reported that measurements with the Hubble Space Telescope of how the aurorae moved over Ganymede’s surface suggest it has a subsurface ocean. A large salt-water ocean affects Ganymede’s magnetic field, and consequently, its aurora. The evidence suggests that Ganymede’s oceans might be the largest in the entire Solar System.
The existence of a liquid, iron–nickel-rich core provides a natural explanation for the intrinsic magnetic field of Ganymede detected by Galileo spacecraft. The convection in the liquid iron, which has high electrical conductivity, is the most reasonable model of magnetic field generation. The density of the core is 5.5–6 g/cm3 and the silicate mantle is 3.4–3.6 g/cm3.The radius of this core may be up to 500 km. The temperature in the core of Ganymede is probably 1500–1700 K and pressure up to 10 GPa (99,000 atm).
- Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system, and is larger than the planet Mercury. If it were not orbiting as Jupiter’s second-largest moon, it could be considered a dwarf planet.
- Ganymede is the only moon in the solar system known to have a substantial magnetosphere. That implies there is something inside helping to generate a strong magnetic field.
- Like Europa, Ganymede is thought to have a subsurface ocean, overlying a liquid iron and nickel core. That core is what helps generate the magnetic field.
- The surface of Ganymede is icy and covered with two main types of landscape: young, lighter regions and darker, older and cratered terrain. The dark areas appear to contain clays and organic materials.
- Ganymede has a thin atmosphere that appears to contain oxygen. This was confirmed by Hubble Space Telescope observations. The oxygen is likely freed as water ice on the surface is broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen by solar radiation.
- The first mission to explore Ganymede up close was Pioneer 10, followed by the Voyager missions, Galileo, and New Horizons.
- Several missions to explore Ganymede in more detail have been suggested, but most have been cancelled or are still on the drawing boards.
- Ganymede was likely formed in place around the infant Jupiter in the early solar system. Several smaller worlds likely accreted together to make this moon.