It’s no secret that Mars once had abundant water flowing on its surface in the forms of rivers, lakes, and even an ocean. For this reason, scientists continue to wonder whether or not Mars might have had life in the past. Today, the surface is an extremely cold, dry place where even a single droplet of water would instantly freeze, boil, or evaporate. Unless, of course, the water had salt dissolved in it.
If these “briny” patches still exist on Mars, then it’s possible there are small pockets on the surface where microbes can still exist. This presents problems as far as issues of “planetary protection” are concerned. However, a new study led by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) has shown that if life from Earth were brought over by robotic or human explorers, it probably couldn’t survive in these brines.
In the coming years, NASA has some bold plans to build on the success of the New Horizons mission. Not only did this spacecraft make history by conducting the first-ever flyby of Pluto in 2015, it has since followed up on that by making the first encounter in history with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – 2014 MU69 (aka. Ultima Thule).
Given the wealth of data and stunning images that resulted from these events (which NASA scientists are still processing), other similarly-ambitious missions to explore the outer Solar System are being considered. For example, there is the proposal for the Trident spacecraft, a Discovery-class mission that would reveal things about Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.
According the Giant Impact Hypothesis, the Earth-Moon system was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object collided with Earth. This impact led to the release of massive amounts of material that eventually coalesced to form the Earth and Moon. Over time, the Moon gradually migrated away from Earth and assumed its current orbit.
Since then, there have been regular exchanges between the Earth and the Moon due to impacts on their surfaces. According to a recent study, an impact that took place during the Hadean Eon (roughly 4 billion years ago) may have been responsible for sending the Earth’s oldest sample of rock to the Moon, where it was retrieved by the Apollo 14 astronauts.
Everyone on Earth is invited to join the celebration by hosting or attending an InOMN event — and uniting on one day each year to look at and learn about the Moon together. We encourage you to go to InOMN events near you, such as at your local planetariums or museums, or to go out and observe the moon yourself! You can find events near you at the InOMN site. You can also follow the InOMN Twitter feed to see what everyone is doing to celebrate!
Our friends over at CosmoQuest are proud to be partners in this celebration of Earth’s natural satellite. There you can “Observe the Moon” all year long by taking part in lunar-themed activities, such as our Moon Mappers citizen science program, where you’ll get to look at some of the most detailed images taken by the LRO, and help our scientists study the moon and it’s surface. This excellent program is available free of charge, no matter the weather, time of day or your location – you get the best views of the Moon ever!
Take some photos of your activities, whether outdoors observing or indoors mapping craters, and share them online at the CosmoQuest Twitter and Facebook feeds using the hashtag #observethemoon, and CosmoQuest will repost their favorites!
Here are just a few of the media celebrations that have already been posted for InOMN!
“The Moon and More” is a music video starring musicians Javier Colon (Season 1 winner of NBC’s “The Voice”), and Matt Cusson in collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/David Ladd, producer
On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons probe made history as it passed within 12,500 km (7,800 mi) of Pluto, thus making it the first spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet up close. And since this historic flyby, scientists and the astronomy enthusiasts here at Earth have been treated to an unending stream of breathtaking images and scientific discoveries about this distant world.
And thanks to the New York Times and the Universities Space Research Association‘s Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas, it is now possible to take a virtual reality tour of Pluto. Using the data obtained by the New Horizon’s instruments, users will be able to experience what it is like to explore the planet using their smartphone or computer, or in 3D using a VR headset.
The seven-minute film, titled “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart“, which is narrated by science writer Dennis Overbye of the New York Times – shows viewers what it was like to approach the dwarf planet from the point of the view of the New Horizon’s probe. Upon arrival, they are then able to explore Pluto’s surface, taking in 360 degree views of its icy mountains, heart-shaped plains, and largest moon, Charon.
This represents the most detailed and clear look at Pluto to date. A few decades ago, the few maps of Pluto we had were the result of close observations that measured changes in the planet’s total average brightness as it was eclipsed by its largest moon, Charon. Computer processing yielded brightness maps, which were very basic by modern standards.
In the early 2000s, images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope were processed in order to create a more comprehensive view. Though the images were rather undetailed, they offered a much higher resolution view than the previous maps, allowing certain features – like Pluto’s large bright spots and the dwarf planet’s polar regions – to be resolved for the first time.
However, with the arrival of the New Horizons mission, human beings have been finally treated to a close-up view of Pluto and its surface. This included Pluto’s now-famous heart-shaped plains, which were captured by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) while it was still several days away from making its closest approach.
This was then followed-up by very clear images of its surface features and atmosphere, which revealed floating ice hills, mountains and icy flow plains, and surface clouds composed of methane and tholins. From all of these images, we now know what the surface of this distant world looks like with precision. All of this has allowed scientists here at Earth to reconstruct, in stunning detail, what it would be like to travel to Pluto and stand on its surface.
Amazingly, only half of New Horizon’s images and measurements have been processed so far. And with fresh data expected to arrive until this coming October, we can expect that scientists will be working hard for many years to analyze it all. One can only imagine what else they will learn about this mysterious world. And one can only hope that any news findings will be uploaded to the app (and those like it)!
The VR app can be downloaded at the New York Times VR website, and is available for both Android and Apple devices. It can also be viewed using headset’s like Google Cardboard, a smartphone, and a modified version exists for computer browsers.
The planets of the outer Solar System are known for being strange, as are their many moons. This is especially true of Triton, Neptune’s largest moon. In addition to being the seventh-largest moon in the Solar System, it is also the only major moon that has a retrograde orbit – i.e. it revolves in the direction opposite to the planet’s rotation. This suggests that Triton did not form in orbit around Neptune, but is a cosmic visitor that passed by one day and decided to stay.
And like most moons in the outer Solar System, Triton is believed to be composed of an icy surface and a rocky core. But unlike most Solar moons, Triton is one of the few that is known to be geologically active. This results in cryovolcanism, where geysers periodically break through the crust and turn the surface Triton into what is sure to be a psychedelic experience!
Discovery and Naming:
Triton was discovered by British astronomer William Lassell on October 10th, 1846, just 17 days after the discovery of Neptune by German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. After learning about the discovery, John Herschel – the son of famed English astronomer William Herschel, who discovered many of Saturn’s and Uranus’ moons – wrote to Lassell and recommended he observe Neptune to see if it had any moons as well.
Lassell did so and discovered Neptune’s largest moon eight days later. Thirty-four years later, French astronomer Camille Flammarion named the moon Triton – after the Greek sea god and son of Poseidon (the equivalent of the Roman god Neptune) – in his 1880 bookAstronomie Populaire. It would be several decades before the name caught on however. Until the discovery of the second moon Nereid in 1949, Triton was commonly known simply as “the satellite of Neptune”.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
At 2.14 × 1022 kg, and with a diameter of approx. 2,700 kilometers (1,680 miles) km, Triton is the largest moon in the Neptunian system – comprising more than 99.5% of all the mass known to orbit the planet. In addition to being the seventh-largest moon in the Solar System, it is also more massive than all known moons in the Solar System smaller than itself combined.
With no axial tilt and an eccentricity of virtually zero, the moon orbits Neptune at a distance of 354,760 km (220,438 miles). At this distance, Triton is the farthest satellite of Neptune, and orbits the planet every 5.87685 Earth days. Unlike other moons of its size, Triton has a retrograde orbit around its host planet.
Most of the outer irregular moons of Jupiter and Saturn have retrograde orbits, as do some of Uranus’s outer moons. However, these moons are all much more distant from their primaries, and are rather small in comparison. Triton also has a synchronous orbit with Neptune, which means it keeps one face aimed towards the planet at all times.
Another all-important aspect of Triton’s orbit is that it is decaying. Scientists estimate that in approximately 3.6 billion years, it will pass below Neptune’s Roche limit and will be torn apart.
Triton has a radius, density (2.061 g/cm3), temperature and chemical composition similar to thatof Pluto. Because of this, and the fact that it circles Neptune in a retrograde orbit, astronomers believe that the moon originated in the Kuiper Belt and later became trapped by Neptune’s gravity.
Another theory has it that Triton was once a dwarf planet with a companion. In this scenario, Neptune captured Triton and flung its companion away when the giant gas moved further out into the solar system, billions of years ago.
Also like Pluto, 55% of Triton’s surface is covered with frozen nitrogen, with water ice comprising 15–35% and dry ice (aka. frozen carbon dioxide) forming the remaining 10–20%. Trace amounts of methane and carbon monoxide ice are believed to exist there as well, as are small amounts of ammonia (in the form of ammonia dihydrate in the lithosphere).
Triton’s density suggests that its interior is differentiated between a solid core made of rocky material and metals, a mantle composed of ice, and a crust. There is enough rock in Triton’s interior for radioactive decay to power convection in the mantle, which may even be sufficient to maintain a subterranean ocean. As with Jupiter’s moon of Europa, the proposed existence of this warm-water ocean could mean the presence of life beneath the icy crusts.
Atmosphere and Surface Features:
Triton has a considerably high albedo, reflecting 60–95% of the sunlight that reaches it. The surface is also quite young, which is an indication of the possible existence of an interior ocean and geological activity. The moon has a reddish tint, which is probably the result of the methane ice turning to carbon due to exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
Triton is considered to be one of the coldest places in the Solar System. The moon’s surface temperature is approx. -235°C while Pluto averages about -229°C. Scientists say that Pluto may drop as low as -240°C at the furthest point from the Sun in its orbit, but it also gets much warmer closer to the Sun, giving it a higher overall temperature average.
It is also one of the few moons in the Solar System that is geologically active, which means that its surface is relatively young due to resurfacing. This activity also results in cryovolcanism, where water ammonia and nitrogen gas burst forth from the surface instead of liquid rock. These nitrogen geysers can send plumes of liquid nitrogen 8 km above the surface of the moon.
Because of the geological activity constantly renewing the moon’s surface, there are very few impact craters on Triton. Like Pluto, Triton has an atmosphere that is thought to have resulted from the evaporation of ices from its surface. Like its surface ices, Triton’s tenuous atmosphere is made up of nitrogen with trace amounts of carbon monoxide and small amounts of methane near the surface.
This atmosphere consists of a troposphere rising to an altitude of 8km, where it then gives way to a thermosphere that reaches out to 950 km from the surface. The temperature of Triton’s upper atmosphere, at 95-100 K (ca.-175 °C/-283 °F) is higher than that at the surface, due to the influence of solar radiation and Neptune’s magnetosphere.
A haze permeates most of Triton’s troposphere, thought to be composed largely of hydrocarbons and nitriles created by the action of sunlight on methane. Triton’s atmosphere also has clouds of condensed nitrogen that lie between 1 and 3 km from the surface.
Observations taken from Earth and by the Voyager 2 spacecraft have shown that Triton experiences a warm summer season every few hundred years. This could be the result of a periodic change in the planet’s albedo (i.e. its gets darker and redder) which could be caused by either frost patterns or geological activity.
This change would allow more heat to be absorbed, followed by an increase in sublimation and atmospheric pressure. Data collected between 1987 and 1999 indicated that Triton was approaching one of these warm summers.
When NASA’s Voyager 2 made a flyby of Neptune in August of 1989, the mission controllers also decided to conduct a flyby of Triton – similar to Voyager 1‘s encounter with Saturn and Titan. When it made its flyby, most of the northern hemisphere was in darkness and unseen by Voyager.
Because of the speed of Voyager’s visit and the slow rotation of Triton, only one hemisphere was seen clearly at close distance. The rest of the surface was either in darkness or seen as blurry markings. Nevertheless, the Voyager 2 spacecraft managed to capture several images of the moon and spotted geysers of liquid nitrogen blasting out of two distinct features on the surface.
In August of 2014, in anticipation of New Horizons impending encounter with Pluto, NASA restored these photos and used them to create the first global color map of Triton. Produced by Paul Schenk, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, the map was also used to make a movie (shown below) that recreated the historic Voyager 2 encounter in time for the 25th anniversary of the event.
Yes, Triton is indeed an unusual moon. Aside from its rather unique characteristics (retrograde motion, geological activity) the moon’s landscape is likely to be an amazing sight. For anyone standing on the surface, surrounded by colorful ices, plumes of nitrogen and ammonia, a nitrogen haze and Neptune’s big blue disc hanging on the sky, the experience would seem like something akin to a hallucination.
In the end, it is too bad that the Solar System will one day be saying good-bye to this moon. Because of the nature of its orbit, the moon will eventually fall into Neptune’s gravity well and break up. At which point, Neptune will have a huge ring like Saturn, until those particles crash into the planet as well.
That too would be something to behold. One can only hope that humanity will still be around in 3.6 billion years to witness it!