There’s Sand on Titan, Where Does it Come From?

This true-color image of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, shows the moon's thick, hazy atmosphere. Image: By NASA - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA14602, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44822294

Even though the Cassini orbiter ended its mission on of September 15th, 2017, the data it gathered on Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, continues to astound and amaze. During the thirteen years that it spent orbiting Saturn and conducting flybys of its moons, the probe gathered a wealth of data on Titan’s atmosphere, surface, methane lakes, and rich organic environment that scientists continue to pore over.

For instance, there is the matter of the mysterious “sand dunes” on Titan, which appear to be organic in nature and whose structure and origins remain have remained a mystery. To address these mysteries, a team of scientists from John Hopkins University (JHU) and the research company Nanomechanics recently conducted a study of Titan’s dunes and concluded that they likely formed in Titan’s equatorial regions.

Their study, “Where does Titan Sand Come From: Insight from Mechanical Properties of Titan Sand Candidates“, recently appeared online and has been submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. The study was led by Xinting Yu, a graduate student with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) at JHU, and included EPS Assistant Professors Sarah Horst (Yu’s advisor) Chao He, and Patricia McGuiggan, with support provided by Bryan Crawford of Nanomechanics Inc.

To break it down, Titan’s sand dunes were originally spotted by Cassini’s radar instruments in the Shangri-La region near the equator. The images the probe obtained showed long, linear dark streaks that looked like wind-swept dunes similar to those found on Earth. Since their discovery, scientists have theorized that they are comprised of grains of hydrocarbons that have settled on the surface from Titan’s atmosphere.

In the past, scientists have conjectured that they form in the northern regions around Titan’s methane lakes and are distributed to the equatorial region by the moon’s winds. But where these grains actually came from, and how they came to be distributed in these dune-like formations, has remained a mystery. However, as Yu explained to Universe Today via email, that is only part of what makes these dunes mysterious:

“First, nobody expected to see any sand dunes on Titan before the Cassini-Huygens mission, because global circulation models predicted the wind speeds on Titan are too weak to blow the materials to form dunes. However, through Cassini we saw vast linear dune fields that covers almost 30% of the equatorial regions of Titan!

“Second, we are not sure how Titan sands are formed.Dune materials on Titan are completely different from those on Earth. On Earth, dune materials are mainly silicate sand fragments weathered from silicate rocks. While on Titan, dune materials are complex organics formed by photochemistry in the atmosphere, falling to the ground. Studies show that the dune particles are pretty big (at least 100 microns), while the photochemistry formed organic particles are still pretty small near the surface (only around 1 micron). So we are not sure how the small organic particles are transformed into the big sand dune particles (you need a million small organic particles to form one single sand particle!)

“Third, we also don’t know where the organic particles in the atmosphere are processed to become bigger to form the dune particles. Some scientists think these particles can be processed everywhere to form the dune particles, while some other researchers believe their formation need to be involved with Titan’s liquids (methane and ethane), which are currently located only in the polar regions.”

Dunes on Titan seen in Cassini’s radar (top) that are similar to Namibian sand dunes on Earth. The features that appear to be clouds in the top picture are actually topographic features. Credit: NASA

To shed light on this, Yu and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments to simulate materials being transported on both terrestrial and icy bodies. This consisted of using several natural Earth sands, such as silicate beach sand, carbonate sand and white gyspum sand. To simulate the kinds materials found on Titan, they used laboratory-produced tholins, which are molecules of methane that have been subjected to UV radiation.

The production of tholins was specifically conducted to recreate the kinds of organic aerosols and photochemistry conditions that are common on Titan. This was done using the Planetary HAZE Research (PHAZER) experimental system at Johns Hopkins University – for which the Principal Investigator is Sarah Horst. The last step consisted of using a nanoidentification technique (overseen by Bryan Crawford of Nanometrics Inc.) to study the mechanical properties of the simulated sands and tholins.

This consisted of placing the sand simulants and tholins into a wind tunnel to determine their mobility and see if they could be distributed in the same patterns. As Yu explained:

“The motivation behind the study is to try to answer the third mystery. If the dune materials are processed through liquids, which are located in the polar regions of Titan, they need to be strong enough to be transported from the poles to the equatorial regions of Titan, where most of the dunes are located. However, the tholins we produced in the lab are in extremely low amounts: the thickness of the tholin film we produced is only around 1 micron, about 1/10-1/100 of the thickness of human hair. To deal with this, we used a very intriguing and precise nanoscale technique called nanoindentation to perform the measurements. Even though the produced indents and cracks are all in nanometer scales, we can still precisely determine mechanical properties like Young’s modulus (indicator of stiffness), nanoindentation hardness (hardness), and fracture toughness (indicator of brittleness) of the thin film.”

Radar image of sand dunes on Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/ASI/ESA and USGS/ESA

In the end, the team determined that the organic molecules found on Titan are much softer and more brittle when compared to even the softest sands on Earth. Simply put, the tholins they produced did not appear to have the strength to travel the immense distance that lies between Titan’s northern methane lakes and the equatorial region. From this, they concluded that the organic sands on Titan are likely formed near where they are located.

“And their formation may not involve liquids on Titan, since that would require a huge transportation distance of over 2000 kilometers from the Titan’s poles to the equator,” Yu added. “The soft and brittle organic particles would be grinded to dust before they reach the equator. Our study used a completely different method and reinforced some of results inferred from Cassini observations.”

In the end, this study represents a new direction for researchers when it comes to the study of Titan and other bodies in the Solar System. As Yu explained, in the past, researchers were mostly constrained with Cassini data and modelling to answer questions about Titan’s sand dunes. However, Yu and her colleagues were able to use laboratory-produced analogs to address these questions, despite the fact that the Cassini mission is now at an end.

What’s more, this most recent study is sure to be of immense value as scientists continue to pore over Cassini’s data in anticipation of future missions to Titan. These missions aim to study Titan’s sand dunes, methane lakes and rich organic chemistry in more detail. As Yu explained:

“[O]ur results can not only help understand the origin of Titan’s dunes and sands, but also it will provide crucial information for potential future landing missions on Titan, such as Dragonfly (one of two finalists (out of twelve proposals) selected for further concept development by NASA’s New Frontiers program). The material properties of the organics on Titan can actually provide amazing clues to solve some of the mysteries on Titan.

“In a study we published last year in JGR-planets (2017, 122, 2610–2622), we found out that the interparticle forces between tholin particles are much larger than common sand on Earth, which means the organics on Titan are much more cohesive (or stickier) than silicate sands on Earth. This implies that we need a larger wind speed to blow the sand particles on Titan, which could help the modeling researchers to answer the first mystery. It also suggests that Titan sands could be formed by simple coagulation of organic particles in the atmosphere, since they are much easier to stick together. This could help understand the second mystery of Titan’s sand dunes.”

Artist’s concept of the dragonfly being deployed to Titan and commencing its exploration mission. Credit: APL/Michael Carroll

In addition, this study has implications for the study of bodies other than Titan. “We have found organics on many other solar system bodies, especially icy bodies in the outer solar system, such as Pluto, Neptune’s moon Triton, and comet 67P,” said Yu. “And some of the organics are photochemically produced similarly to Titan. And we do found wind blown features (called aeolian features) on those bodies as well, so our results could be applied to these planetary bodies as well.”

In the coming decade, multiple missions are expected to explore the moons of the outer Solar System and reveal things about their rich environments that could help shed light on the origins of life here on Earth. In addition, the James Webb Space Telescope (now expected to be deployed in 2021) will also use its advanced suit of instruments to study the planets of the Solar System in the hopes of address these burning questions.

Further Reading: arXiv

Clouds Seen On Pluto For First Time

Recent images sent by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the streaky patch at right. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Recent images sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the hazy streak right of center. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

I think we were all blown away when the New Horizons spacecraft looked back at Pluto’s dark side and returned the first photos of a surprisingly complex, layered atmosphere. Colorless nitrogen along with a small percentage of methane make up Pluto’s air. Layers of haze are likely created when the two gases react in sunlight to form tiny, soot-like particles called tholins. These can ultimately grow large enough to settle toward the surface and coat and color Pluto’s icy exterior.

Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit:
Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Now it seems Pluto’s atmosphere is capable of doing even more — making clouds! In an e-mail exchange with New Scientist, Lowell Observatory astronomer Will Grundy discusses the possibility that streaks and small condensations within the hazes might be individual clouds. Grundy also tracked a feature as it passed over different parts of the Plutonian landscape below, strongly suggesting a cloud.  If confirmed, they’d be the first-ever clouds seen on the dwarf planet, and a sign this small 1,473-mile-wide (2,370 km) orb possesses an even more complex atmosphere than imagined.

Faint arrows along Pluto's limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Faint arrows along Pluto’s limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere.
15 minutes after its closest approach, New Horizons snapped this image of the smooth expanse of Sputnik Planum (right) flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Given the onion-like layers of haze and potential clouds, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprise that it snows on Pluto. The New Horizons team announced the discovery this week of a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse of the informally named Cthulhu Regio. Cthulhu, pronounced kuh-THU-lu and named for a character in American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s books, stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator, starting from the west of the vast nitrogen ice plain, Sputnik Planum. At 1,850 miles (3,000 km) long and 450 miles (750 km) wide, Cthulhu is a bit larger than the state of Alaska. But ever so much colder!

A section of Cthulhu Regio boasts peaks covered in methane frost or snow.
The upper slopes of Cthulhu’s highest peaks are coated with a bright material that contrasts sharply with the dark red color of the surrounding plains. Scientists think it’s methane ice condensed from Pluto’s atmosphere. The far right panel shows the distribution of methane ice on the surface. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Cthulhu’s red color probably comes from a covering of dark tholins formed when methane interacts with sunlight. But new close-up images reveal that the region’s highest mountains appear coated with a much brighter material. Scientists think it’s methane, condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere.

“That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member.

Compositional data from the New Horizon’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), shown in the right panel in the image above, shows that the location of the bright ice on the mountain peaks correlates almost exactly with the distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple.

New Horizons still has plenty of images stored on its hard drive, so we’re likely to see more clouds, frosty peaks and gosh-knows-what-else as the probe speeds ever deeper into space while returning daily postcards from its historic encounter.

Awesome Blue Skies and Red Surface Ice Found at Pluto – The Other Red Planet

Much to the amazement and delight of scientists, the latest findings about Pluto reveal it possesses hazy blue skies and numerous red colored patches of water ice exposed on the surface of a world also now known as “The Other Red Planet.”

With each passing day, significant discoveries about Pluto continue piling up higher and higher as more and more data gathered and stored from this past summer’s historic flyby by NASA’s New Horizons reaches ground stations back here on Earth.

“Blue skies–Pluto is awesome!” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.

The bluish tint to Pluto’s skies were unexpectedly discovered after researchers examined the first color images of the high altitude atmospheric hazes returned by New Horizons last week that were taken by the probes Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC).

“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt?” Stern said in a NASA statement.

During New Horizons flyby on July 14, 2015, it discovered that Pluto is the biggest object in the outer solar system and thus the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt.”

The Kuiper Belt comprises the third and outermost region of worlds in our solar system.

“It’s gorgeous!” exclaims Stern.

Moreover, the source of Pluto’s blue haze is different from Earth’s and more related to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon – currently being explored by NASA’s Cassini mission orbiting Saturn since 2004.

On Earth, the blue sky is caused by light scattering off tiny particles of nitrogen molecules. Whereas on Titan its related to soot-like particles called tholins.

Tholins are generated by a series of very complex sunlight-initiated chemical reactions between nitrogen and methane (CH4) high in the atmosphere. This eventually produces relatively small, soot-like particles of complex hydrocarbons.

“That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles,” said New Horizons science team researcher Carly Howett, of SwRI, in a statement.

“A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger — but still relatively small — soot-like particles we call tholins.”

As the tholins rain down on Pluto, they add to the widespread red surface coloring.

The Ralph instrument was also key in another discovery announced by New Horizons researchers.

Numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto’s surface were discovered by combining measurements from the Ralph MVIC spectral composition mapper and infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument.

The strongest signatures of water ice were found in the Virgil Fossa and Viking Terra regions berby the western edge of Pluto’s huge heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio feature – see image below.

Water Ice on Pluto: Regions with exposed water ice are highlighted in blue in this composite image from New Horizons' Ralph instrument, combining visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) with infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The strongest signatures of water ice occur along Virgil Fossa, just west of Elliot crater on the left side of the inset image, and also in Viking Terra near the top of the frame. A major outcrop also occurs in Baré Montes towards the right of the image, along with numerous much smaller outcrops, mostly associated with impact craters and valleys between mountains. The scene is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) across. Note that all surface feature names are informal.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Water Ice on Pluto: Regions with exposed water ice are highlighted in blue in this composite image from New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, combining visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) with infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The strongest signatures of water ice occur along Virgil Fossa, just west of Elliot crater on the left side of the inset image, and also in Viking Terra near the top of the frame. A major outcrop also occurs in Baré Montes towards the right of the image, along with numerous much smaller outcrops, mostly associated with impact craters and valleys between mountains. The scene is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) across. Note that all surface feature names are informal. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Water ice is only found in certain zones of Pluto for reasons yet to be understood. There may also be a relationship to the tholins, that likewise is yet to be gleaned.

“I’m surprised that this water ice is so red,” says Silvia Protopapa, a science team member from the University of Maryland, College Park. “We don’t yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto’s surface.”

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015.   The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).  This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Annotated with informal place names.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, New Horizons remains healthy and is over 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth.

The team hopes to fire up the thrusters later this fall to propel the spacecraft toward a second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in 2019 tentativley named PT1, for Potential Target 1. It is much smaller than Pluto and was recently selected based on images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Planet Neptune

Neptune photographed by Voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL

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.

New Berlin Observatory at Linden Street, where Neptune was discovered observationally. Credit: Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam
New Berlin Observatory at Linden Street, where Neptune was discovered observationally. Credit: Leibniz-Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam

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.

A size comparison of Neptune and Earth. Credit: NASA
A size comparison of Neptune and Earth. Credit: NASA

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 L5 Lagrangian 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.

Neptune’s Composition:

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.

Composition of Neptune. Image credit: NASA
Composition of Neptune. Image credit: NASA

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.

Neptune’s Atmosphere:

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.

In this image, the colors and contrasts were modified to emphasize the planet’s atmospheric features. The winds in Neptune’s atmosphere can reach the speed of sound or more. Neptune’s Great Dark Spot stands out as the most prominent feature on the left. Several features, including the fainter Dark Spot 2 and the South Polar Feature, are locked to the planet’s rotation, which allowed Karkoschka to precisely determine how long a day lasts on Neptune. (Image: Erich Karkoschka)
A modified color/contrast image emphasizing Neptune’s atmospheric features, including wind speed. Credit Erich Karkoschka)

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.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL
Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

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’s Moons:

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).

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting the giant planet Neptune, nearly 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).
This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting the giant planet Neptune, nearly 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).

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).

Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

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 as seen from Voyager 2 during the 1989 flyby. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
The rings of Neptune as seen from Voyager 2 during the 1989 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

Exploration:

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 1s 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!

Characteristics of Neptune:

Position and Movement of Neptune:

Neptune’s Moon and Rings:

History of Neptune:

Neptune’s Surface and Structure:

New Horizons Team Delves into the Mystery of Charon’s “Red Pole”

As we await new imagery and data from the New Horizons’ flyby of the Pluto system to be transmitted to Earth, one piece of the Pluto-Charon puzzle that scientists are looking forward learning more about is the mysterious “dark pole” on Charon. Images sent immediately after the flyby reveal Charon’s north polar region is much darker than the lighter-colored material surrounding it, and it actually has a reddish cast to it.

The New Horizons team says the red pole appears to be a thin deposit of dark material over a distinct, sharply bounded, angular feature – perhaps and impact basin – and scientists hope to learn more by studying higher-resolution images that are currently being beamed back to Earth from the spacecraft.

Carly Howett, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, is one of the scientists studying the mystery of what is causing this color difference and why it shows up at Charon’s north pole.

“Looking at Charon, it’s very clear that the northern polar region is much redder than the rest of the moon,” said Howett in a post on the New Horizons website. “Surfaces vary in color when something about them changes.”

So what is this red material? The leading theory right now is that material from Pluto’s atmosphere is falling to Charon and being ensnared in the polar region by what is known as “cold-trapping.”

It’s is so cold at Charon’s poles – temperatures there vary are just a tad warmer than absolute zero, between -433 and -351 °F (-258 and -213 °C) – that any gases settling there would freeze solid instead of escaping. And with the combination of extremely cold temperatures and solar radiation, the material is transformed to a new substance, and is being trapped on the pole. Howett said it likely won’t disappear with any seasonal changes on Charon.

“We know Pluto’s atmosphere is mainly nitrogen, with some methane and carbon monoxide,” she said, “so we expect that these same constituents are slowly coating Charon’s winter pole. The frozen ices would sublimate away again as soon as Charon’s winter pole emerges back into sunlight, except for one important detail: solar radiation modifies these ices to produce a new substance, which has a higher sublimation temperature and can’t sublimate and then escape from Charon.”

What is the new substance? Scientists can’t say for sure yet, but it might be a tholin.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Hörst Laboratory have produced complex chemical compounds called tholins, which may give Pluto its reddish hue. (Image credit: Chao He, Xinting Yu, Sydney Riemer, and Sarah Hörst, Johns Hopkins University).
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Hörst Laboratory have produced complex chemical compounds called tholins, which may give Pluto its reddish hue. (Image credit: Chao He, Xinting Yu, Sydney Riemer, and Sarah Hörst, Johns Hopkins University).

What is a tholin? Tholins were first created in a laboratory by in the 1970s by Carl Sagan and his team at Cornell. According to planetary scientist Sarah Hörst, who wrote about tholins on The Planetary Society website, Sagan and his team would take mixtures of cosmically relevant gases and irradiate them with various energy sources. The result was “a brown, sometimes sticky, residue,” as Sagan described them in a paper he wrote in 1979.

Hörst said Sagan and team “were searching for answers to questions ranging from ‘why is the Great Red Spot red’ to ‘how did life on Earth originate’ and in the process produced material for which there was no name.”

They came up with the name “tholin,” and theorized that tholins could be a constituent of the Earth’s primitive oceans and therefore as relevant to the origin of life.

In the article Hörst wrote, “I have been studying tholin for almost a decade and in my experience the most frequently used synonyms for tholin are “gunk”, “brown gunk”, and “complex organic gunk”. Tholin is also often described as a “tar-like” substance. Words like tar, kerogen, bitumen, petroleum, asphalt, etc. all describe substances that are potentially similar to tholin in some ways. However, these materials all result from life; they are’biotic.’”

Charon approach from New Horizons. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach
Charon approach from New Horizons. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach

Finding out more about what is going on at Charon’s north pole is indeed intriguing. Tholins might be the same material that give Pluto its reddish-brown hue in some regions, too.

Howett told Universe Today that the main instrument on New Horizons that will really pin down the compositional information is LEISA (Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array).

“This instrument observes 250 wavelengths between 1.25-2.5 microns, making it ideal for detecting the spectral signature of solid features,” she said via email. “We don’t know exactly the composition of the tholin on Charon (many different types are possible) but with LEISA we can look for differences in the spectra between the Charon’s anomalous red region and those surrounding it – to give us some hints of the change in surface composition and the “raw ingredients” for the tholin.”

For example, Howett said, maybe they’ll see more hydrogen cyanide (HCN) around the north pole region, which would open up a lot of complex chemistry options.

“We will start getting this data down in the next few weeks, so hopefully we’ll have some answers soon!” she said.

Further reading: New Horizons website, The Planetary Society

How Many Moons Does Neptune Have?

Neptune and Moons

Neptune, that icy gas giant that is the eighth planet from our Sun, was discovered in 1846 by two astronomers  – Urbain Le Verrier and Johann Galle. In keeping with the convention of planetary nomenclature, Neptune was named after the Roman god of the sea (the equivalent to the Greek Poseidon). And just seventeen days after it was discovered, astronomers began to notice that it too had a system of moons.

Initially, only Triton – Neptune’s largest moon – could be observed. But by the mid-20th century and after, thanks to improvements in ground-based telescopes and the development of robotic space probes, many more moons would be discovered. Neptune now has 14 recognized satellites, and in honor of of their parent planet, all are named for minor water deities in Greek mythology.

Discovery and Naming:

Triton, being the largest and most massive of Neptune’s moons, was the first to be discovered. It was observed by William Lassell on October 10th, 1846, just seventeen days after Neptune was discovered. It would be almost a century before any other moons would be discovered.

The first was Nereid, Neptune’s second largest and most massive moon, which was discovered on May 1st, 1949, by Gerard P. Kuiper (for whom the Kuiper Belt is named) using photographic plates from the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. The third moon, later named Larissa, was first observed by Harold J. Reitsema, William B. Hubbard, Larry A. Lebofsky and David J. Tholen on May 24th, 1981.

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting the giant planet Neptune, nearly 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).
Hubble Space Telescope composite picture showing the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).

The discovery of this moon was purely fortuitous, and occurred as a result of the ongoing search for rings similar to those discovered around Uranus four years earlier. If rings were in fact present, the star’s luminosity would decrease slightly just before the planet’s closest approach. While observing a star’s close approach to Neptune, the star’s luminosity dipped, but only for several seconds. This indicated the presence of a moon rather than a ring.

No further moons were found until Voyager 2 flew by Neptune in 1989. In the course of passing through the system, the space probe rediscovered Larissa and discovered five additional inner moons: Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea and Proteus.

In 2001, two surveys using large ground-based telescopes – the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and the Canada-France-Hawaii telescopes – found five additional outer moons bringing the total to thirteen. Follow-up surveys by two teams in 2002 and 2003 respectively re-observed all five of these moons – which were Halimede, Sao, Psamathe, Laomedeia, and Neso.

And then on July 15th, 2013, a team of astronomers led by Mark R. Showalter of the SETI Institute revealed that they had discovered a previously unknown fourteenth moon in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope from 2004–2009. The as yet unnamed fourteenth moon, currently identified as S/2004 N 1, is thought to measure no more than 16–20 km in diameter.

In keeping with astronomical convention, Neptune’s moons are all taken from Greek and Roman mythology. In this case, all are named for gods of the sea, or for the children of Poseidon (which include Triton, Proteus, Depsina and Thalassa), minor Greek water dieties (Naiad and Nereid) or Nereids , the water nymphs in Greek mythology (Halimede, Galatea, Neso, Sao, Laomedeia and Psamathe).

However, many of the moons were not officially named until the 20th century. The name Triton, which was originally suggested by Camille Flammarion in his 1880 book Astronomie Populaire, but not into common usage until at least the 1930s.

Inner (Regular) Moons:

Neptune’s Regular Moons are those located closest to the planet and which follow circular prograde orbits that lie in the planet’s equatorial plane. They are, in order of distance from Neptune: Naiad (48,227 km), Thalassa (50,074 km), Despina (52,526 km), Galatea (61,953 km), Larissa (73,548 km), S/2004 N 1 (105,300 ± 50 km), and Proteus (117,646 km). All but the outer two are within Neptune-synchronous orbit (meaning that orbit Neptune slower than it’s orbital period (0.6713 days) and thus are being tidally decelerated.

The inner moons are closely associated with Neptune’s narrow ring system. The two innermost satellites, Naiad and Thalassa, orbit between the Galle and LeVerrier rings, whereas Despina orbits just inside the LeVerrier ring. The next moon, Galatea, orbits just inside the most prominent Adams ring and its gravity helps maintaining the ring by containing its particles.

Based on observational data and assumed densities, Naiad measures 96 × 60 × 52 km and weighs approximately 1.9 x 1017 kg. Meanwhile, Thalassa measures 108 x 100 × 52 km and weighs 3.5 x 1017 kg; Despina measures 180 x 148 x 128 and weighs 21 x 1017 kg; Galatea measures 204 x 184 x 144 and weighs 37.5 x 1017 kg; Larissa measures 216 x 204 x 168 and weighs 49.5 x 1017 kg; S/2004 N1 measures 16-20 km in diameter and weighs 0.5 ± 0.4 x 1017 kg; and Proteus measures 436 x 416 x 402 and weighs 50.35 x 1017 kg.

Only the two largest regular moons have been imaged with a resolution sufficient to discern their shapes and surface features. Nevertheless, with the exception of Larissa and Proteus (which are largely rounded) all of Neptune’s inner moons are believed to be elongated in shape. In addition, all the inner moons dark objects, with geometric albedo ranging from 7 to 10%.

Their spectra also indicated 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.

Outer (Irregular) Moons:

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:

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).

Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

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 ?bar.

Using the CRIRES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, a team of astronomers has been able to see that the summer is in full swing in Triton’s southern hemisphere. Credit: ESO
Using the CRIRES instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, a team of astronomers has been able to see that the summer is in full swing in Triton’s southern hemisphere. Credit: ESO

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.

Formation:

Given the lopsided distribution of mass in its moons, it is widely believed that Triton was captured after the formation of Neptune’s original satellite system – much of which would have been destroyed in the process of capture. Many theories have been offered regarding the mechanisms of its capture over the years.

The most widely-accepted is that Triton is a surviving member of a binary Kuiper Belt Object that was disrupted with an encounter with Neptune. In this scenario, Triton’s captured was the result of a three-body encounter, where it fell into a retrograde orbit while the other object was either destroyed or ejected in the process.

Triton’s orbit upon capture would have been highly eccentric, and would have caused chaotic perturbations in the orbits of the original inner Neptunian satellites, causing them to collide and reduce to a disc of rubble. Only after Triton’s orbit became circular again could some of the rubble re-accrete into the present-day regular moons. This means it is likely that Neptune’s present inner satellites are not the original bodies that formed with Neptune.

Numerical simulations show that there is a 0.41 probability that the moon Halimede collided with Nereid at some time in the past. Although it is not known whether any collision has taken place, both moons appear to have similar (“grey”) colors, implying that Halimede could be a fragment of Nereid.

Given its distance from the Sun, the only mission to ever study Neptune and its moons up close was the Voyager 2 mission. And though no missions are currently being planned, several proposals have been made that would see a robotic probe dispatched to the system sometime in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

We have many interesting articles on Neptune, Neptune’s Moons, and the Trans-Neptunian region here at Universe Today. Here’s a full article about Neptune’s Moon Triton, Naiad and Nereid and S/2004 N 1.

Here’s a lovely article on the latest Trans-Neptunian Objects to be discovered, and how Astronomer are Predicting at Least Two More Large Planets in the Solar System

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page titled “Neptune: The Windiest Planet”.

The (Possible) Dwarf Planet 2007 OR10

Over the course of the past decade, more and more objects have been discovered within the Trans-Neptunian region. With every new find, we have learned more about the history of our Solar System and the mysteries it holds. At the same time, these finds have forced astronomers to reexamine astronomical conventions that have been in place for decades.

Consider 2007 OR10, a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) located within the scattered disc that at one time went by the nicknames of “the seventh dwarf” and “Snow White”. Approximately the same size as Haumea, it is believed to be a dwarf planet, and is currently the largest object in the Solar System that does not have a name.

Discovery and Naming:

2007 OR10 was discovered in 2007 by Meg Schwamb, a PhD candidate at Caltech and a graduate student of Michael Brown, while working out of the Palomar Observatory. The object was colloquially referred to as the “seventh dwarf” (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) since it was the seventh object to be discovered by Brown’s team (after Quaoar in 2002, Sedna in 2003, Haumea and Orcus in 2004, and Makemake and Eris in 2005).

Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon
Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

At the time of its discovery, the object appeared to be very large and very white, which led to Brown giving it the other nickname of “Snow White”. However, subsequent observation has revealed that the planet is actually one of the reddest in the Kuiper Belt, comparable only to Haumea. As a result, the nickname was dropped and the object is still designated as 2007 OR10.

The discovery of 2007 OR10 would not be formally announced until January 7th, 2009.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

A study published in 2011 by Brown – in collaboration with A.J. Burgasser (University of California San Diego) and W.C. Fraser (MIT) – 2007 OR10’s diameter was estimated to be between 1000-1500 km. These estimates were based on photometry data obtained in 2010 using the Magellan Baade Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and from spectral data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.

However, a survey conducted in 2012 by Pablo Santos Sanz et al. of the Trans-Neptunian region produced an estimate of 1280±210 km based on the object’s size, albedo, and thermal properties. Combined with its absolute magnitude and albedo, 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed object and the fifth brightest TNO in the Solar System. No estimates of its mass have been made as of yet.

2007 OR10 also has a highly eccentric orbit (0.5058) with an inclination of 30.9376°. What this means is that at perihelion, it is roughly 33 AU (4.9 x 109 km/30.67 x 109 mi) from our Sun while at aphelion, it is as distant as 100.66 AU (1.5 x 1010 km/9.36 x 1010 mi). It also has an orbital period of 546.6 years, which means that the last time it was at perihelion was 1857 and it won’t reach aphelion until 2130. As such, it is currently the second-farthest known large body in the Solar System, and  will be farther out than both Sedna and Eris by 2045.

Composition:

According to the spectral data obtained by Brown, Burgasser and Fraser, 2007 OR10 shows infrared signatures for both water ice and methane, which indicates that it is likely similar in composition to Quaoar. Concurrent with this, the reddish appearance of 2007 OR10 is believed to be due to presence of tholins in the surface ice, which are caused by the irradiation of methane by ultraviolet radiation.

The presence of red methane frost on the surfaces of both 2007 OR10 and Quaoar is also seen as an indication of the possible existence of a tenuous methane atmosphere, which would slowly evaporate into space when the objects are closer to the Sun. Although 2007 OR10 comes closer to the Sun than Quaoar, and is thus warm enough that a methane atmosphere should evaporate, its larger mass makes retention of an atmosphere just possible.

Also, the presence of water ice on the surface is believed to imply that the object underwent a brief period of cryovolcanism in its distant past. According to Brown, this period would have been responsible not only for water ice freezing on the surface, but for the creation of an atmosphere that included nitrogen and carbon monoxide. These would have been depleted rather quickly, and a tenuous atmosphere of methane would be all that remains today.

However, more data is required before astronomers can say for sure whether or not 2007 OR10 has an atmosphere, a history of cryovolcanism, and what its interior looks like. Like other KBOs, it is possible that it is differentiated between a mantle of ices and a rocky core. Assuming that there is sufficient antifreeze, or due to the decay of radioactive elements, there may even be a liquid-water ocean at the core-mantle boundary.

Classification:

Though it is too difficult to resolve 2007 OR10’s size based on direct observation, based on calculations of 2007 OR10’s albedo and absolute magnitude, many astronomers believe it to be of sufficient size to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. As Brown stated in 2011, 2007 OR10 “must be a dwarf planet even if predominantly rocky”, which is based on a minimum possible diameter of 552 km and what is believed to be the conditions under which hydrostatic equilibrium occurs in cold icy-rock bodies.

That same year, Scott S. Sheppard and his team (which included Chad Trujillo) conducted a survey of bright KBOs (including 2007 OR10) using the Palomar Observatory’s 48 inch Schmidt telescope. According to their findings, they determined that “[a]ssuming moderate albedos, several of the new discoveries from this survey could be in hydrostatic equilibrium and thus could be considered dwarf planets.”

Currently, nothing is known of 2007 OR10’s mass, which is a major factor when determining if a body has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. This is due in part to there being no known satellite(s) in orbit of the object, which in turn is a major factor in determining the mass of a system. Meanwhile, the IAU has not addressed the possibility of accepting additional dwarf planets since before the discovery of 2007 OR10 was announced.

Alas, much remains to be learned about 2007 OR10. Much like it’s Trans-Neptunian neighbors and fellow KBOs, a lot will depend on future missions and observations being able to learn more about its size, mass, composition, and whether or not it has any satellites. However, given its extreme distance and fact that it is currently moving further and further away, opportunities to observe and explore it via flybys will be limited.

However, if all goes well, this potential dwarf planet could be joining the ranks of such bodies as Pluto, Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake in the not-too-distant future. And with luck, it will be given a name that actually sticks!

We have many interesting articles on Dwarf Planets, the Kuiper Belt, and Plutoids here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Pluto is no longer a planet and how astronomers are predicting Two More Large Planets in the outer Solar System.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode all about Dwarf Planets titled, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out the NASA’s Solar System Overview: Dwarf Planets, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, as well as Mike Browns Planets.