Beyond the orbit of Neptune, the farthest recognized-planet from our Sun, lies the mysteries population known as the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNOs). For years, astronomers have been discovering bodies and minor planets in this region which are influenced by Neptune’s gravity, and orbit our Sun at an average distance of 30 Astronomical Units.
In recent years, several new TNOs have been discovered that have caused us to rethink what constitutes a planet, not to mention the history of the Solar System. The most recent of these mystery objects is called “Niku”, a small chunk of ice that takes its name for the Chinese word for “rebellious”. And while many such objects exist beyond the orbit of Neptune, it is this body’s orbital properties that really make it live up to the name!
In a paper recently submitted to arXiv, the international team of astronomers that made the discovery explain how they found the TNO using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System 1 Survey (Pan-STARRS 1). Measuring just 200 km (124 miles) in diameter, this object’s orbit is tilted 110° to the plane of the Solar system and orbits the Sun backwards.
Ordinarily, when planetary systems form, angular momentum forces everything to spin in the same direction. Hence why, when viewed from the celestial north pole, all the objects in our Solar System appear to be orbiting the Sun in a counter-clockwise direction. So when objects orbit the Sun in the opposite direction, an outside factor must be at play.
What’s more, the team compared the orbit of Niku with other high-inclination TNOs and Centaurs, and noticed that they occupy a common orbital plane and experience a clustering effect. As Dr. Matthew J. Holman – a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and one of the researchers on the team – told Universe Today via email:
“The orbit of Niku is unusual in that it is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the Solar System. More than that, it is orbiting in the opposite direction of most Solar System bodies. Furthermore, there are a few bodies that share the same or orbital plane, with some orbiting prograde and some orbiting retrograde. That was unexpected.”
One possibility, which the team has already considered, was that this mysterious orbital pattern might be evidence of the much sought-after Planet Nine. This hypothetical planet, which is believed to exist at the outer edge of our Solar System (20 times further from our Sun than Neptune), if it exists, is also thought to be 10 times the size of the Earth.
“Planet Nine seems to be gravitationally influencing another nearby population of bodies that are also orbiting nearly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system,” said Holman, “but those objects have much larger orbits that also come closer to sun at their closest approach. The similarity (perpendicular) nature of Niku’s orbit to that of the more distant population hints at a connection.”
Establishing such a connection based on the orbits of distant objects is certainly tempting, especially since no direct evidence of Planet Nine has been obtained yet. However, upon further analysis, the team concluded that Niku is too close to the rest of the Solar System for its orbit to be effected by Planet Nine.
In addition, the orbits of the clustered objects that circle the sun backwards along the same 110-degree plane path was seen as a further indication that something else is probably at work. Then again, it may very well be that there is a giant planet out there, and that it’s influence is mitigated by other factors we are not yet aware of.
“The population of objects in Niku-like orbits is not long-term stable,” said Holman. “We hoped that adding the gravitational influence of an object like Planet Nine might stabilize their orbits, but that turned out not to be the case. We are NOT ruling out Planet Nine, but we are not finding any direct evidence for it, at least with this investigation.”
So for the time being, it looks like Planet Nine enthusiasts are going to have to wait for some other form of confirmation. But as Konstantin Batyagin – the Caltech astronomer who announced findings that hinted at Planet Nine earlier this year – was quoted as saying, this discovery is yet another step in the direction of a more complete understanding of the outer Solar System:
“Whenever you have some feature that you can’t explain in the outer solar system, it’s immensely exciting because it’s in some sense foreshadowing a new development. As they say in the paper, what they have right now is a hint. If this hint develops into a complete story that would be fantastic.”
Whatever the cause of Niku’s strange orbit (or those TNOs that share its orbital pattern) may be, it is clear that there is more going on in the outer Solar System than we thought. And with every new discovery, and every new object catalogued by astronomers, we are bettering our understanding of the dynamics that are at work out there.
In the meantime, perhaps we’ll just need to send some additional missions out that way. We have nothing to lose but our preconceived notions! And be sure to enjoy this video about this latest find, courtesy of New Scientist:
Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?
Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.
As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.
Welcome back to our ongoing series, “The Definitive Guide To Terraforming”! We continue with a look at the Moon, discussing how it could one day be made suitable for human habitation.
Ever since the beginning of the Space Age, scientists and futurists have explored the idea of transforming other worlds to meet human needs. Known as terraforming, this process calls for the use of environmental engineering techniques to alter a planet or moon’s temperature, atmosphere, topography or ecology (or all of the above) in order to make it more “Earth-like”. As Earth’s closest celestial body, the Moon has long been considered a potential site.
All told, colonizing and/or terraforming the Moon would be comparatively easy compared to other bodies. Due to its proximity, the time it would take to transport people and equipment to and from the surface would be significantly reduced, as would the costs of doing so. In addition, it’s proximity means that extracted resources and products manufactured on the Moon could be shuttled to Earth in much less time, and a tourist industry would also be feasible.
In the outer reaches of the Solar System, beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies a region permeated by celestial objects and minor planets. This region is known as the “Kuiper Belt“, and is named in honor of the 20th century astronomer who speculated about the existence of such a disc decades before it was observed. This disc, he reasoned, was the source of the Solar Systems many comets, and the reason there were no large planets beyond Neptune.
Gerard Kuiper is also regarded by many as being the “father of planetary science”. During the 1960s and 70s, he played a crucial role in the development of infrared airborne astronomy, a technology which led to many pivotal discoveries that would have been impossible using ground-based observatories. At the same time, he helped catalog asteroids, surveyed the Moon, Mars and the outer Solar System, and discovered new moons.
The 17th century was a very auspicious time for the sciences, with advancements being made in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences. But it was perhaps in the field of astronomy that the greatest achievements were made. In the space of a century, several planets and moons were observed for the first time, accurate models were made to predict the motions of the planets, and the law of universal gravitation was conceived.
In the midst of this, the name of Christiaan Huygens stands out among the rest. As one of the preeminent scientists of his time, he was pivotal in the development of clocks, mechanics and optics. And in the field of astronomy, he discovered Saturn’s Rings and its largest moon – Titan. Thanks to Huygens, subsequent generations of astronomers were inspired to explore the outer Solar System, leading to the discovery of other Cronian moons, Uranus, and Neptune in the following century.
Neptune is the eight planet from our Sun, one of the four gas giants, and one of the four outer planets in our Solar System. Since the “demotion” of Pluto by the IAU to the status of a dwarf planet – and/or Plutoid and Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – Neptune is now considered to be the farthest planet in our Solar System.
As one of the planets that cannot be seen with the naked eye, Neptune was not discovered until relatively recently. And given its distance, it has only been observed up close on one occasion – in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spaceprobe. Nevertheless, what we’ve come to know about this gas (and ice) giant in that time has taught us much about the outer Solar System and the history of its formation.
Discovery and Naming:
Neptune’s discovery did not take place until the 19th century, though there are indications that it was observed before long that. For instance, Galileo’s drawings from December 28th, 1612, and January 27th, 1613, contained plotted points which are now known to match up with the positions of Neptune on those dates. However, in both cases, Galileo appeared to have mistaken it for a star.
1821, French astronomer Alexis Bouvard published astronomical tables for the orbit of Uranus. Subsequent observations revealed substantial deviations from the tables, which led Bouvard to hypothesize that an unknown body was perturbing Uranus’ orbit through gravitational interaction.
In 1843, English astronomer John Couch Adams began work on the orbit of Uranus using the data he had and produced several different estimates in the following years of the planet’s orbit. In 1845–46, Urbain Le Verrier, independently of Adams, developed his own calculations, which he shared with Johann Gottfried Galle of the Berlin Observatory. Galle confirmed the presence of a planet at the coordinates specified by Le Verrier on September 23rd, 1846.
The announcement of the discovery was met with controversy, as both Le Verrier and Adams claimed responsibility. Eventually, an international consensus emerged that both Le Verrier and Adams jointly deserved credit. However, a re-evaluation by historians in 1998 of the relevant historical documents led to the conclusion that Le Verrier was more directly responsible for the discovery and deserves the greater share of the credit.
Claiming the right of discovery, Le Verrier suggested the planet be named after himself, but this met with stiff resistance outside of France. He also suggested the name Neptune, which was gradually accepted by the international community. This was largely because it was consistent with the nomenclature of the other planets, all of which were named after deities from Greco-Roman mythology.
Neptune’s Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of 24,622 ± 19 km, Neptune is the fourth largest planet in the Solar System and four times as large as Earth. But with a mass of 1.0243×1026 kg – which is roughly 17 times that of Earth – it is the third most massive, outranking Uranus. The planet has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0086, and orbits the Sun at a distance of 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion and 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion.
Neptune takes 16 h 6 min 36 s (0.6713 days) to complete a single sidereal rotation, and 164.8 Earth years to complete a single orbit around the Sun. This means that a single day lasts 67% as long on Neptune, whereas a year is the equivalent of approximately 60,190 Earth days (or 89,666 Neptunian days).
Because Neptune’s axial tilt (28.32°) is similar to that of Earth (~23°) and Mars (~25°), the planet experiences similar seasonal changes. Combined with its long orbital period, this means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. Also owing to its axial tilt being comparable to Earth’s is the fact that the variation in the length of its day over the course of the year is not any more extreme than it on Earth.
Neptune’s orbit also has a profound impact on the region directly beyond it, known as the Kuiper Belt (otherwise known as the “Trans-Neptunian Region”). Much in the same way that Jupiter’s gravity dominates the Asteroid Belt, shaping its structure, so Neptune’s gravity dominates the Kuiper Belt. Over the age of the Solar System, certain regions of the Kuiper belt became destabilised by Neptune’s gravity, creating gaps in the Kuiper belt’s structure.
There also exists orbits within these empty regions where objects can survive for the age of the Solar System. These resonances occur when Neptune’s orbital period is a precise fraction of that of the object – meaning they complete a fraction of an orbit for every orbit made by Neptune. The most heavily populated resonance in the Kuiper belt, with over 200 known objects, is the 2:3 resonance.
Objects in this resonance complete 2 orbits for every 3 of Neptune, and are known as plutinos because the largest of the known Kuiper belt objects, Pluto, is among them. Although Pluto crosses Neptune’s orbit regularly, the 2:3 resonance ensures they can never collide.
Neptune has a number of known trojan objects occupying both the Sun–Neptune L4 and L5Lagrangian Points – regions of gravitational stability leading and trailing Neptune in its orbit. Some Neptune trojans are remarkably stable in their orbits, and are likely to have formed alongside Neptune rather than being captured.
Due to its smaller size and higher concentrations of volatiles relative to Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune (much like Uranus) is often referred to as an “ice giant” – a subclass of a giant planet. Also like Uranus, Neptune’s internal structure is differentiated between a rocky core consisting of silicates and metals; a mantle consisting of water, ammonia and methane ices; and an atmosphere consisting of hydrogen, helium and methane gas.
The core of Neptune is composed of iron, nickel and silicates, with an interior model giving it a mass about 1.2 times that of Earth. The pressure at the center is estimated to be 7 Mbar (700 GPa), about twice as high as that at the center of Earth, and with temperatures as high as 5,400 K. At a depth of 7000 km, the conditions may be such that methane decomposes into diamond crystals that rain downwards like hailstones.
The mantle is equivalent to 10 – 15 Earth masses and is rich in water, ammonia and methane. This mixture is referred to as icy even though it is a hot, dense fluid, and is sometimes called a “water-ammonia ocean”. Meanwhile, the atmosphere forms about 5% to 10% of its mass and extends perhaps 10% to 20% of the way towards the core, where it reaches pressures of about 10 GPa – or about 100,000 times that of Earth’s atmosphere.
Increasing concentrations of methane, ammonia and water are found in the lower regions of the atmosphere. Unlike Uranus, Neptune’s composition has a higher volume of ocean, whereas Uranus has a smaller mantle.
At high altitudes, Neptune’s atmosphere is 80% hydrogen and 19% helium, with a trace amount of methane. As with Uranus, this absorption of red light by the atmospheric methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune’s is darker and more vivid. Because Neptune’s atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown atmospheric constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune’s more intense coloring.
Neptune’s atmosphere is subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere (where temperature decreases with altitude), and the stratosphere (where temperature increases with altitude). The boundary between the two, the tropopause, lies at a pressure of 0.1 bars (10 kPa). The stratosphere then gives way to the thermosphere at a pressure lower than 10-5 to 10-4 microbars (1 to 10 Pa), which gradually transitions to the exosphere.
Neptune’s spectra suggest that its lower stratosphere is hazy due to condensation of products caused by the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane (i.e. photolysis), which produces compounds such as ethane and ethyne. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which are responsible for Neptune’s stratosphere being warmer than that of Uranus.
For reasons that remain obscure, the planet’s thermosphere experiences unusually high temperatures of about 750 K (476.85 °C/890 °F). The planet is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated by ultraviolet radiation, which means another heating mechanism is involved – which could be the atmosphere’s interaction with ion’s in the planet’s magnetic field, or gravity waves from the planet’s interior that dissipate in the atmosphere.
Because Neptune is not a solid body, its atmosphere undergoes differential rotation. The wide equatorial zone rotates with a period of about 18 hours, which is slower than the 16.1-hour rotation of the planet’s magnetic field. By contrast, the reverse is true for the polar regions where the rotation period is 12 hours.
This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and results in strong latitudinal wind shear and violent storms. The three most impressive were all spotted in 1989 by the Voyager 2 space probe, and then named based on their appearances.
The first to be spotted was a massive anticyclonic storm measuring 13,000 x 6,600 km and resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Known as the Great Dark Spot, this storm was not spotted five later (Nov. 2nd, 1994) when the Hubble Space Telescope looked for it. Instead, a new storm that was very similar in appearance was found in the planet’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms have a shorter life span than Jupiter’s.
The Scooter is another storm, a white cloud group located farther south than the Great Dark Spot. This nickname first arose during the months leading up to the Voyager 2 encounter in 1989, when the cloud group was observed moving at speeds faster than the Great Dark Spot.
The Small Dark Spot, a southern cyclonic storm, was the second-most-intense storm observed during the 1989 encounter. It was initially completely dark; but as Voyager 2 approached the planet, a bright core developed and could be seen in most of the highest-resolution images.
Neptune has 14 known satellites, all but one of which are named after Greek and Roman deities of the sea (S/2004 N 1 is currently unnamed). These moons are divided into two groups – the regular and irregular moons – based on their orbit and proximity to Neptune. Neptune’s Regular Moons – Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, S/2004 N 1, and Proteus – are those that are closest to the planet and which follow circular, prograde orbits that lie in the planet’s equatorial plane.
They range in distance from 48,227 km (Naiad) to 117,646 km (Proteus) from Neptune, and all but the outermost two (S/2004 N 1, and Proteus) orbit Neptune slower than its orbital period of 0.6713 days. Based on observational data and assumed densities, these moons range in size and mass from 96 x 60 x 52 km and 1.9 x 1017 kg (Naiad) to 436 x 416 x 402 km and 50.35 x 1017 kg (Proteus).
With the exception of Larissa and Proteus (which are largely rounded) all of Neptune’s inner moons are believed to be elongated in shape. Their spectra also indicates that they are made from water ice contaminated by some very dark material, probably organic compounds. In this respect, the inner Neptunian moons are similar to the inner moons of Uranus.
Neptune’s irregular moons consist of the planet’s remaining satellites (including Triton). They generally follow inclined eccentric and often retrograde orbits far from Neptune. The only exception is Triton, which orbits close to the planet, following a circular orbit, though retrograde and inclined.
In order of their distance from the planet, the irregular moons are Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Neso and Psamathe – a group that includes both prograde and retrograde objects. With the exception of Triton and Nereid, Neptune’s irregular moons are similar to those of other giant planets and are believed to have been gravitationally captured by Neptune.
In terms of size and mass, the irregular moons are relatively consistent, ranging from approximately 40 km in diameter and 4 x 1016 kg in mass (Psamathe) to 62 km and 16 x 1016 kg for Halimede. Triton and Nereid are unusual irregular satellites and are thus treated separately from the other five irregular Neptunian moons. Between these two and the other irregular moons, four major differences have been noted.
First of all, they are the largest two known irregular moons in the Solar System. Triton itself is almost an order of magnitude larger than all other known irregular moons and comprises more than 99.5% of all the mass known to orbit Neptune (including the planet’s rings and thirteen other known moons).
Secondly, they both have atypically small semi-major axes, with Triton’s being over an order of magnitude smaller than those of all other known irregular moons. Thirdly, they both have unusual orbital eccentricities: Nereid has one of the most eccentric orbits of any known irregular satellite, and Triton’s orbit is a nearly perfect circle. Finally, Nereid also has the lowest inclination of any known irregular satellite
With a mean diameter of around 2700 km and a mass of 214080 ± 520 x 1017 kg, Triton is the largest of Neptune’s moons, and the only one large enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. is spherical in shape). At a distance of 354,759 km from Neptune, it also sits between the planet’s inner and outer moons.
Triton follows a retrograde and quasi-circular orbit, and is composed largely of nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and water ices. With a geometric albedo of more than 70% and a Bond albedo as high as 90%, it is also one of the brightest objects in the Solar System. The surface has a reddish tint, owning to the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane, causing tholins.
Triton is also one of the coldest moons in the Solar System, with surface temperature of about 38 K (-235.2 °C). However, owing to the moon being geologically active (which results in cryovolcanism) and surface temperature variations that cause sublimation, Triton is one of only two moons in the Solar System that has a substantial atmosphere. Much like it’s surface, this atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen with small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide, and with an estimated pressure of about 14 nanobar.
Triton has a relatively high density of about 2 g/cm3 indicating that rocks constitute about two thirds of its mass, and ices (mainly water ice) the remaining one third. There also may be a layer of liquid water deep inside Triton, forming a subterranean ocean. Surface features include the large southern polar cap, older cratered planes cross-cut by graben and scarps, as well as youthful features caused by endogenic resurfacing.
Because of its retrograde orbit and relative proximity to Neptune (closer than the Moon is to Earth), Triton is grouped with the planet’s irregular moons (see below). In addition, it is believed to be a captured object, possibly a dwarf planet that was once part of the Kuiper Belt. At the same time, these orbital characteristics are the reason why Triton experiences tidal deceleration. and will eventually spiral inward and collide with the planet in about 3.6 billion years.
Nereid is the third-largest moon of Neptune. It has a prograde but very eccentric orbit and is believed to be a former regular satellite that was scattered to its current orbit through gravitational interactions during Triton’s capture. Water ice has been spectroscopically detected on its surface. Nereid shows large, irregular variations in its visible magnitude, which are probably caused by forced precession or chaotic rotation combined with an elongated shape and bright or dark spots on the surface.
Neptune’s Ring System:
Neptune has five rings, all of which are named after astronomers who made important discoveries about the planet – Galle, Le Verrier, Lassell, Arago, and Adams. The rings are composed of at least 20% dust (with some containing as much as 70%) while the rest of the material consists of small rocks. The planet’s rings are difficult to see because they are dark and vary in density and size.
The Galle ring was named after Johann Gottfried Galle, the first person to see the planet using a telescope; and at 41,000–43,000 km, it is the nearest of Neptune’s rings. The La Verrier ring – which is very narrow at 113 km in width – is named after French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, the planet’s co-founder.
At a distance of between 53,200 and 57,200 km from Neptune (giving it a width of 4,000 km) the Lassell ring is the widest of Neptune’s rings. This ring is named after William Lassell, the English astronomer who discovered Triton just seventeen days after Neptune was discovered. The Arago ring is 57,200 kilometers from the planet and less than 100 kilometers wide. This ring section is named after Francois Arago, Le Verrier’s mentor and the astronomer who played an active role in the dispute over who deserved credit for discovering Neptune.
The outer Adams ring was named after John Couch Adams, who is credited with the co-discovery of Neptune. Although the ring is narrow at only 35 kilometers wide, it is the most famous of the five due to its arcs. These arcs accord with areas in the ring system where the material of the rings is grouped together in a clump, and are the brightest and most easily observed parts of the ring system.
Although the Adams ring has five arcs, the three most famous are the “Liberty”, “Equality”, and “Fraternity” arcs. Scientists have been traditionally unable to explain the existence of these arcs because, according to the laws of motion, they should distribute the material uniformly throughout the rings. However, stronomers now estimate that the arcs are corralled into their current form by the gravitational effects of Galatea, which sits just inward from the ring.
The rings of Neptune are very dark, and probably made of organic compounds that have been altered due to exposition to cosmic radiation. This is similar to the rings of Uranus, but very different to the icy rings around Saturn. They seem to contain a large quantity of micrometer-sized dust, similar in size to the particles in the rings of Jupiter.
It’s believed that the rings of Neptune are relatively young – much younger than the age of the Solar System, and much younger than the age of Uranus’ rings. Consistent with the theory that Triton was a KBO that was seized, by Neptune’s gravity, they are believed to be the result of a collision between some of the planet’s original moons.
The Voyager 2 probe is the only spacecraft to have ever visited Neptune. The spacecraft’s closest approach to the planet occurred on August 25th, 1989, which took place at a distance of 4,800 km (3,000 miles) above Neptune’s north pole. Because this was the last major planet the spacecraft could visit, it was decided to make a close flyby of the moon Triton – similar to what had been done for Voyager 1‘s encounter with Saturn and its moon Titan.
The spacecraft performed a near-encounter with the moon Nereid before it came to within 4,400 km of Neptune’s atmosphere on August 25th, then passed close to the planet’s largest moon Triton later the same day. The spacecraft verified the existence of a magnetic field surrounding the planet and discovered that the field was offset from the center and tilted in a manner similar to the field around Uranus.
Neptune’s rotation period was determined using measurements of radio emissions and Voyager 2 also showed that Neptune had a surprisingly active weather system. Six new moons were discovered during the flyby, and the planet was shown to have more than one ring.
While no missions to Neptune are currently being planned, some hypothetical missions have been suggested. For instance, a possible Flagship Mission has been envisioned by NASA to take place sometime during the late 2020s or early 2030s. Other proposals include a possible Cassini-Huygens-style “Neptune Orbiter with Probes”, which was suggested back in 2003.
Another, more recent proposal by NASA was for Argo – a flyby spacecraft that would be launched in 2019, which would visit Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and a Kuiper belt object. The focus would be on Neptune and its largest moon Triton, which would be investigated around 2029.
With its icy-blue color, liquid surface, and wavy weather patterns, Neptune was appropriately named after the Roman god of the sea. And given its distance from our planet, there is still a great deal that remains to be learned about it. In the coming decades, one can only hope that a mission to the outer Solar System and/or Kuiper Belt includes a flyby of Neptune.
We have many interesting articles about Neptune here at Universe Today. Below is a comprehensive list for your viewing (and possibly researching) pleasure!
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!
In 1610, Galileo’s observed four satellites orbiting the distant gas giant of Jupiter. This discovery would ignite a revolution in astronomy, and encouraged further examinations of the outer Solar System to see what other mysteries it held. In the centuries that followed, astronomers not only discovered that other gas giants had similar systems of moons, but that these systems were rather extensive.
For example, Uranus has a system of 27 confirmed satellites. Of these, Oberon is the outermost satellite, as well as the second largest and second most-massive. Named in honor of a mythical king of fairies, it is also the ninth most massive moon in the Solar System.
Discovery and Naming:
Discovered in 1787 by Sir William Herschel, Oberon was one of two major satellites discovered in a single day (the other being Uranus’ moon of Titania). At the time, he reported observing four other moons; however, the Royal Astronomical Society would later determine that these were spurious. It would be almost five decades after the moons were discovered that an astronomer other than Herschel observed them.
Initially, Oberon was referred to as “the second satellite of Uranus”, and in 1848, was given the designation Uranus II by William Lassell. In 1851, Lassell discovered Uranus’ other two moons – later named Ariel and Miranda – and began numbering them based on their distance from the planet . Oberon was thus given the designation of Uranus IV.
By 1852, Herschel’s son John suggested naming the moon’s his father observed Oberon and Titania, at the request of Lassell himself. All of these names were taken from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, with the name Oberon being derived from the King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a diameter of approx. 1,523 kilometers, a surface area of 7,285,000 km², and a mass of 3.014 ± 0.075 x 10²¹ kilograms, Oberon is the second largest, and second most massive of Uranus’ moons. It is also the ninth most massive moon in the solar system.
At a distance of 584,000 km from Uranus, it is the farthest of the five major moons from Uranus. However, this distance is subject to change, as Oberon has a small orbital eccentricity and inclination relative to Uranus’ equator. It has an orbital period of about 13.5 days, coincident with its rotational period. This means that Oberon is a tidally-locked, synchronous satellite with one face always pointing toward the planet.
Since (like all of Uranus’ moons) Oberon orbits the planet around its equatorial plane, and Uranus orbits the Sun almost on its side, the moon experiences a rather extreme seasonal cycle. Essentially, both the northern and southern poles spend a period of 42 years in complete darkness or complete sunlight – with the sun rising close to the zenith over one of the poles at each solstice.
So far, the only close-up images of Oberon have been provided by the Voyager 2 probe, which photographed the moon during its flyby of Uranus in January 1986. The images cover about 40% of the surface, but only 25% of the surface was imaged with a resolution that allows geological mapping.
In addition, the time of the flyby coincided with the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice, when nearly the entire northern hemisphere was in darkness. This prevented the northern hemisphere from being studied in any detail. No other spacecraft has visited the Uranian system before or since, and no missions to the planet are currently being planned.
Oberon’s density is higher than the typical density of Uranus’ satellites, at 1.63 g/cm³. This would indicate that the moon consists of roughly equal proportions of water ice and a dense non-ice component. The latter could be made of rock and carbonaceous material including heavy organic compounds.
Spectroscopic observations have confirmed the presence of crystalline water ice in the surface of the moon. It is believed that Oberon, much like the other Uranian moons, consists of an icy mantle surrounding a rocky core. If this is true, then the radius of the core (480 km) would be equal to approx. 63% of the radius of the moon, and its mass would be around 54% of the moon’s mass.
Currently, the full composition of the icy mantle is unknown. However, it it were to contain enough ammonia or other antifreeze compounds, the moon may possess a liquid ocean layer at the core–mantle boundary. The thickness of this ocean, if it exists, would be up to 40 km and its temperature would be around 180 K.
It is unlikely that at these temperatures, such an ocean could support life. But assuming that hydrothermal vents exist in the interior, it is possible life could exist in small patches near the core. However, the internal structure of Oberon depends heavily on its thermal history, which is poorly known at present.
Oberon is the second-darkest large moon of Uranus (after Umbriel), with a surface that appears to be generally red in color – except where fresh impact deposits have left neutral or slightly blue colors. In fact, Oberon is the reddest moon amongst its peers, with a trailing hemisphere that is significantly redder than its leading hemisphere.
The reddening of the surfaces is often a result of space weathering caused by bombardment of the surface by charged particles and micrometeorites over many millions of years. However, the color asymmetry of Oberon is more likely caused by accretion of a reddish material spiraling in from outer parts of the Uranian system.
Oberon’s surface is the most heavily cratered of all the Uranian moons, which would indicate that Oberon has the most ancient surface among them. Consistent with the planet’s name, these surface features are named after characters in Shakespearean plays. The largest known crater, Hamlet, measures 206 kilometers in diameter, while the Macbeth, Romeo, and Othello craters measure 203, 159, and 114 km respectively.
Other prominent surface features are what is known as chasmata – steep-sided depressions that are comparable to rift valleys or escarpments here on Earth. The largest known chasmata on Oberon is the Mommur Chasma, which measures 537 km in diameter and takes its name from the enchanted forest in French folklore that was ruled by Oberon.
As you can plainly see, there is much that remains unknown about this satellite. Much like its peers, how they came to be, and what secrets may lurk beneath their surfaces, is still open to speculation. One can only hope that future generations will choose to mount another Voyager-like expedition to the Outer Solar System for the sake of studying the Uranian satellites.