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Galileo: Discovering Jupiter's Moons

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 12.17.05
  • NOVA

The telescope forever changed astronomy by providing more detailed views of distant objects than was previously possible. Galileo pioneered astronomy as the first person to study the celestial objects through a telescope. His observations, including the discovery of moons around Jupiter, helped revolutionize the way people thought about the universe. This video segment adapted from NOVA describes some of Galileo's first discoveries with the telescope.

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NOVA Galileo: Discovering Jupiter's Moons
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 3m 04s
  • Size: 9.2 MB
  • Level: Grades 3-12

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Source: NOVA: "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens"

This resource was adapted from NOVA: "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens."


In 1610, when Galileo first pointed his newly built telescope toward the sky, no one had ever had the capability to see distant objects in any detail, and he had no idea what to expect. Focusing on the Moon first, he discovered that its surface was not smooth as people had previously thought, but covered with craters and mountains not unlike those on Earth.

Next, Galileo turned his attention to another bright object in the night sky — the planet Jupiter. Today, we know quite a bit about Jupiter. With a diameter about 11 times greater than Earth's, Jupiter is the largest planet around our Sun. It is so enormous that its mass is more than twice the combined mass of all the other planets in our solar system. Composed mostly of gaseous hydrogen and helium, Jupiter is a gas giant. It has a trademark banded look that results from its turbulent atmosphere, and its Great Red Spot is a giant storm that has been raging for centuries. Jupiter also has a faint ring system and, as of May 2005, 63 known moons surround it.

In a very short time, Galileo discovered Jupiter's four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, now called the Galilean moons. Each moon has unique characteristics that make it stand out in the solar system. For example, Io is the most volcanically active object in the solar system. Europa may have an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface and may be the best candidate for another habitable world. Callisto is one of the most heavily cratered bodies in the solar system, and Ganymede, which is even larger than the planet Mercury, is the largest moon.

The four Galilean moons were the first celestial bodies to be discovered with a telescope. Although Galileo at first thought they were fixed stars, his continued observations showed that their positions changed on a nightly basis. Galileo soon recognized that these new objects were satellites of Jupiter. The discovery that celestial objects could revolve around something other than Earth provided strong evidence in support of the heliocentric theory.

To learn more about early telescopes, check out The Beginnings of the Telescope and Galileo's Telescope.

To learn more about how Galileo's observations changed astronomy, check out Galileo: Sun-Centered System.

To learn more about another of Galileo's astronomical discoveries, check out Galileo: Sunspots.

Questions for Discussion

    • How did Galileo surmise that Jupiter had moons that revolved around it?
    • How did the discovery of Jupiter's moons support the heliocentric theory?
    • What was so shocking about this discovery in Galileo's time? Why did he rush to publish his discovery?
    • Explain the importance of Galileo's work on the telescope and its effect on the world at that time and today.
    • Discuss the role of technology in science.

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

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