Ganymede is the biggest and most massive moon in the solar system but many of its features have been hidden from sight until now. In December last year, NASA‘s Juno spacecraft flew over Ganymede’s north pole snapping the first-ever photos of this alien world’s features. According to NASA, Ganymede is the ninth biggest object in the solar system, right behind Earth, Venus and Mars.
Ganymede is the only moon in the solar system that is larger than Mercury.
NASA’s Juno took the photos on December 26, 2019, as it was headed towards a flyby of Jupiter.
The spacecraft mapped the icy moon’s north pole with infrared sensors.
Ganymede is mostly composed of water ice but it also happens to be the only moon in the solar system that has a magnetic field.
NASA news: The Juno spacecraft has photographed Ganymede’s north pole (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM)
NASA news: Ganymede is the biggest and most massive moon in the solar system (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM)
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On Earth, the planet’s magnetic field allows charged particles streaming from the Sun – plasma – to enter our atmosphere and create beautiful auroras.
But Ganymede has no atmosphere and the solar plasma trapped by Jupiter’s magnetosphere is allowed to strike the moon’s surface unopposed.
According to NASA, the constant barrage of plasma has a dramatic effect on the Moon’s ice.
Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, said: “The JIRAM data show the ice at and surrounding Ganymede’s north pole has been modified by the precipitation of plasma.
We are able to see the north pole in its entirety
“It is a phenomenon that we have been able to learn about for the first time with Juno because we are able to see the north pole in its entirety.”
The ice found near both of the moon’s poles is amorphous, meaning it has no clearly defined shape.
Charged particles follow the moon’s magnetic field to the poles where they strike and alter the structure of the ice.
The effect is so powerful, molecules of frozen water found at both poles have no order to their structure.
The polar ice also appears to have a different infrared structure to the crystalline ice found at Ganymede’s equator.
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Giuseppe Sindoni, programme manager of the JIRAM instrument for the Italian Space Agency, said: “These data are another example of the great science Juno is capable of when observing the moons of Jupiter.”
Ganymede is one of the four Galilean moons discovered in 1610 by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.
The Galilean moons are Ganymede, Io, Callisto and Europa.
In total, the Gas Giant Jupiter boasts 53 named moons and another 26 awaiting confirmation.
NASA said: “The interiors of Io, Europa and Ganymede have a layered structure – as does Earth.
“Io has a core, and a mantle of at least partially molten rock, topped by a crust of solid rock coated with sulfur compounds.
“Europa and Ganymede both have a core; a rock envelope around the core; a thick, soft ice layer; and a thin crust of impure water ice.
“In the case of Europa, a global subsurface water layer probably lies just below the icy crust.
“Layering at Callisto is less well defined and appears to be mainly a mixture of ice and rock.”