The end of 1609 and the first months of 1610 mark the beginning of modern astronomy. 400 years ago today, January 7th, Galileo Galilei looked up towards the constellation Orion. He aimed his telescope at an object brighter than any of the surrounding stars - the planet Jupiter.
The view through his telescope startled him. He did not see only one object, but rather, one large world, with four smaller objects nearby.
These four objects are the moons we now call Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Galileo wrote in his book Sidereus Nuncius, which was published in 1610 the following words:
"I should disclose and publish to the world the occasion of discovering and observing four Planets, never seen from the beginning of the world up to our own times, their positions, and the observations made during the last two months about their movements and their changes of magnitude; and I summon all astronomers to apply themselves to examine and determine their periodic times, which it has not been permitted me to achieve up to this day . . . On the 7th day of January in the present year, 1610, in the first hour of the following night, when I was viewing the constellations of the heavons through a telescope, the planet Jupiter presented itself to my view, and as I had prepared for myself a very excellent instrument, I noticed a circumstance which I had never been able to notice before, namely that three little stars, small but very bright, were near the planet; and although I believed them to belong to a number of the fixed stars, yet they made me somewhat wonder, because they seemed to be arranged exactly in a straight line, parallel to the ecliptic, and to be brighter than the rest of the stars, equal to them in magnitude . . .When on January 8th, led by some fatality, I turned again to look at the same part of the heavens, I found a very different state of things, for there were three little stars all west of Jupiter, and nearer together than on the previous night."
"I therefore concluded, and decided unhesitatingly, that there are three stars in the heavens moving about Jupiter, as Venus and Mercury around the Sun; which was at length established as clear as daylight by numerous other subsequent observations. These observations also established that there are not only three, but four, erratic sidereal bodies performing their revolutions around Jupiter."
On the 400th anniversary of their first sighting, use a pair of binoculars to spot Galileo's four tiny moons directly next to the planet. On the evening of January 7 look to the southwest after sunset. Europa and Ganymede will appear to the upper left and Io and Callisto on the lower right of Jupiter.
Letters with translations http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/galileo/ganymede/discovery.html