On January 7, 1610, Galileo Galilei pointed his “spyglass” to the heavens and stared up at Jupiter, one of the brightest lights in the evening sky, and noted what he at first assumed to be three bright stars near the planet. But over the following nights, he realized that those three bright bodies weren’t fixed in the heavens like stars, but rather seemed to dance around Jupiter along with a fourth, smaller body.
Galileo triumphantly announced his discovery of four “planets” that revolved around Jupiter in his March treatise, Starry Messenger [pdf]. Thinking of his pocketbook, he dutifully proposed naming them the Medicean Stars in honor of his patron, Cosimo de Medici. But the name didn’t stick, and today we honor the scientist rather than the patron by calling Jupiter’s four largest satellites the Galilean moons.
The discovery dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, in which all planets and stars were believed to orbit the Earth. For, as Galileo wrote in his treatise, “our own eyes show us four stars which wander around Jupiter as does the moon around the earth.”
In the 400 years that have passed since Galileo first laid eyes on them, we’ve learned a great deal about the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (all named after the mythological paramours of Jupiter). If all goes according to plan we’ll soon get to know them much more intimately–NASA and the European Space Agency are currently planning missions to closely observe three of the moons. Click though this gallery to view NASA’s most stunning photos of the four satellites, and to find out what we’ve discovered in the four centuries since Galileo began the work.
(For more on Galileo’s discovery and what it meant to science, check out this post from DISCOVER’s Phil Plait.)