satellite, natural, celestial body orbiting a planet, dwarf planet, asteroid, or star of a larger size. The most familiar natural satellite is the earth's moon; thus, satellites of other planets are often referred to as moons. Within the solar system the earth's moon is the largest satellite in relation to its planet and Charon is even larger relative to the dwarf planet Pluto, although neither is the largest in actual size. The largest natural satellite, Jupiter's Ganymede, is 3,268 mi (5,262 km) in diameter, and it and Saturn's Titan are both larger than the planet Mercury. In comparison, some satellites are quite small, e.g., Deimos, the outer satellite of Mars, is c.4 mi (6 km) in diameter. Neither of the inferior planets, Mercury or Venus, has a known satellite; all of the superior planets (those whose orbits lie beyond the orbit of the earth) have at least two known satellites (Mars, 2; Jupiter, 63; Saturn, 61; Uranus, 27; Neptune, 13). A number of satellites, e.g., Phoebe of Saturn, Triton of Neptune, and most of the small outer moons of Jupiter and Uranus, have retrograde motion and may be asteroids that were captured by the planet's gravitation. The asteroid Ida has a tiny moon, Dactyl, that is about a mile (1.6 km) in diameter and orbits about 60 mi (97 km) above Ida's surface.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.