As the New Horizons spacecraft hurtles out towards interstellar space, it has now reached an historical milestone. On April 17, 2021, New Horizons passed 50 astronomical units, or 50 times Earth’s distance from the Sun. It is just the 5th spacecraft to reach that distance, joining the Voyagers 1 and 2 and the Pioneers 10 and 11.Continue reading “New Horizons is Now 50 Astronomical Units Away From the Sun”
Thirty years have now passed since the Voyager 1 spacecraft snapped one of the most iconic and memorable pictures in spaceflight history. Known as the “Pale Blue Dot,” the heart-rending view shows planet Earth as a single, bright blue pixel in the vastness of space, as seen from the outer reaches of the solar system.
Now, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have provided a new and improved version, using state of the art image-processing software and techniques to reprocess the thirty-year-old image. JPL software engineer and image processor Kevin Gill, whose images we feature often on Universe Today, led the effort.Continue reading “The Pale Blue Dot: Now New and Improved”
Voyagers 1 and 2 have the distinction of being in space for 42 years and still operating. And even though they’re 18 billion km (11 billion miles) from the Sun, they’re still valuable scientifically. But they’re running out of energy, and if NASA wants them to continue on much longer, they have some decisions to make.Continue reading “NASA has Figured Out How to Extend the Lives of the Voyagers Even Longer”
As you probably know, NASA recently announced plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes well, the Europa Clipper will blast off for the world in the 2020s, and orbit the icy moon to discover all its secrets.
And that’s great and all, I like Europa just fine. But you know where I’d really like us to go next? Titan.
Titan, as you probably know, is the largest moon orbiting Saturn. In fact, it’s the second largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s Ganymede. It measures 5,190 kilometers across, almost half the diameter of the Earth. This place is big.
It orbits Saturn every 15 hours and 22 days, and like many large moons in the Solar System, it’s tidally locked to its planet, always showing Saturn one side.
Before NASA’s Voyager spacecraft arrived in 1980, astronomers actually thought that Titan was the biggest moon in the Solar System. But Voyager showed that it actually has a thick atmosphere, that extends well into space, making the true size of the moon hard to judge.
This atmosphere is one of the most interesting features of Titan. In fact, it’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with a significant atmosphere. If you could stand on the surface, you would experience about 1.45 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. In other words, you wouldn’t need a pressure suit to wander around the surface of Titan.
You would, however, need a coat. Titan is incredibly cold, with an average temperature of almost -180 Celsius. For you Fahrenheit people that’s -292 F. The coldest ground temperature ever measured on Earth is almost -90 C, so way way colder.
You would also need some way to breathe, since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen, with trace amounts of methane and hydrogen. It’s thick and poisonous, but not murderous, like Venus.
Titan has only been explored a couple of times, and we’ve actually only landed on it once.
The first spacecraft to visit Titan was NASA’s Pioneer 11, which flew past Saturn and its moons in 1979. This flyby was followed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980 and then Voyager 2 in 1981. Voyager 1 was given a special trajectory that would take it as close as possible to Titan to give us a close up view of the world.
Voyager was able to measure its atmosphere, and helped scientists calculate Titan’s size and mass. It also got a hint of darker regions which would later turn out to be oceans of liquid hydrocarbons.
The true age of Titan exploration began with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn on July 4, 2004. Cassini made its first flyby of Titan on October 26, 2004, getting to within 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles of the planet. But this was just the beginning. By the end of its mission later this year, Cassini will have made 125 flybys of Titan, mapping the world in incredible detail.
Cassini saw that Titan actually has a very complicated hydrological system, but instead of liquid water, it has weather of hydrocarbons. The skies are dotted with methane clouds, which can rain and fill oceans of nearly pure methane.
And we know all about this because of Cassini’s Huygen’s lander, which detached from the spacecraft and landed on the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005. Here’s an amazing timelapse that shows the view from Huygens as it passed down through the atmosphere of Titan, and landed on its surface.
Huygens landed on a flat plain, surrounded by “rocks”, frozen globules of water ice. This was lucky, but the probe was also built to float if it happened to land on liquid instead.
It lasted for about 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, sending data back to Earth before it went dark, wrapping up the most distant landing humanity has ever accomplished in the Solar System.
Although we know quite a bit about Titan, there are still so many mysteries. The first big one is the cycle of liquid. Across Titan there are these vast oceans of liquid methane, which evaporate to create methane clouds. These rain, creating mists and even rivers.
Is it volcanic? There are regions of Titan that definitely look like there have been volcanoes recently. Maybe they’re cryovolcanoes, where the tidal interactions with Saturn cause water to well up from beneath crust and erupt onto the surface.
Is there life there? This is perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all. The methane rich system has the precursor chemicals that life on Earth probably used to get started billions of years ago. There’s probably heated regions beneath the surface and liquid water which could sustain life. But there could also be life as we don’t understand it, using methane and ammonia as a solvent instead of water.
To get a better answer to these questions, we’ve got to return to Titan. We’ve got to land, rove around, sail the oceans and swim beneath their waves.
Now you know all about this history of the exploration of Titan. It’s time to look at serious ideas for returning to Titan and exploring it again, especially its oceans.
Planetary scientists have been excited about the exploration of Titan for a while now, and a few preliminary proposals have been suggested, to study the moon from the air, the land, and the seas.
First up, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission, a mission proposed in 2009, for a late 2020s arrival at Titan. This spacecraft would consist of a lander and a balloon that would float about in the atmosphere, and study the world from above. Over the course of its mission, the balloon would circumnavigate Titan once from an altitude of 10km, taking incredibly high resolution images. The lander would touch down in one of Titan’s oceans and float about on top of the liquid methane, sampling its chemicals.
As we stand right now, this mission is in the preliminary stages, and may never launch.
In 2012, Dr. Jason Barnes and his team from the University of Idaho proposed sending a robotic aircraft to Titan, which would fly around in the atmosphere photographing its surface. Titan is actually one of the best places in the entire Solar System to fly an airplane. It has a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity, and unlike the balloon concept, an airplane is free to go wherever it needs powered by a radioactive thermal generator.
Although the mission would only cost about $750 million or so, NASA hasn’t pushed it beyond the conceptual stage yet.
An even cooler plan would put a boat down in one of Titan’s oceans. In 2012, a team of Spanish engineers presented their idea for how a Titan boat would work, using propellers to put-put about across Titan’s seas. They called their mission the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, or TALISE.
Propellers are fine, but it turns out you could even have a sailboat on Titan. The methane seas have much less density and viscosity than water, which means that you’d only experience about 26% the friction of Earth. Cassini measured windspeeds of about 3.3 m/s across Titan, which half the average windspeed of Earth. But this would be plenty of wind to power a sail when you consider Titan’s thicker atmosphere.
And here’s my favorite idea. A submarine. This 6-meter vessel would float on Titan’s Kraken Mare sea, studying the chemistry of the oceans, measuring currents and tides, and mapping out the sea floor.
It would be capable of diving down beneath the waves for periods, studying interesting regions up close, and then returning to the surface to communicate its findings back to Earth. This mission is in the conceptual stage right now, but it was recently chosen by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Group for further study. If all goes well, the submarine would travel to Titan by 2038 when there’s a good planetary alignment.
Okay? Are you convinced? Let’s go back to Titan. Let’s explore it from the air, crawl around on the surface and dive beneath its waves. It’s one of the most interesting places in the entire Solar System, and we’ve only scratched the surface.
If I’ve done my job right, you’re as excited about a mission to Titan as I am. Let’s go back, let’s sail and submarine around that place. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
A renewed era of space exploration is underway. Compared to the Space Race of the 20th century, which was characterized by two superpowers locked in a game of “getting there first”, the new era is defined predominantly by cooperation and open participation. One way in which this is evident is the role played by “citizen scientists” and amateur astronomers in exploration missions.
Consider the recently-released short film titled “A Journey to Jupiter” by Peter Rosen – a photographer and digital artist in Stockholm, Sweden. Using over 1000 images taken by amateur planetary photographers from around the world, this film takes viewers on a virtual journey to the Jovian planet, showcasing its weather patterns and dynamic nature in a way that is truly inspiring.
The images that went into making this video were collected by over 91 amateur astronomers over the course of three and a half months (between December 19th, 2014 and March 31st, 2015). After Rosen collected them, he and his associates (Christoffer Svenske and Johan Warell) then spent a year remapping them into cylindrical projections. Rosen then added color corrections, and stitched all the images into a total of 107 maps.
Much like fast-motion videos that illustrate weather patterns on Earth, or the passage of the stars across the night sky, the end result of was a film that shows the motions of Jupiter’s cloud belts and its Great Red Spot in high-resolution. Some 250 revolutions of the planet are illustrated, including from the equatorial band, the south pole, and the north pole.
As Rosen told Universe Today via email, this project was the latest in a lifelong pursuit of making astronomy accessible to the public:
“I have been into Astronomy since I was a teenager in the early 1970’s and immediately I got a passion for astrophotography, and more specifically, photographing the planets. I see astronomy as a life-long passion, so it is quite normal to strive for an evolution in what you do. I had an idea growing slowly for some years that it should be possible to animate the cloud belts of Jupiter and reveal the intricate dynamics of its flows, not just taking still pictures that might point to the changes in the structures but without the obvious visual dynamics of an animation.”
“A Journey to Jupiter” was also Rosen’s contribution to the Mission Juno Pro-Amateur Collaboration Project, of which he is part. Established by Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this effort is one of several that seeks to connect amateurs and professionals in support of space exploration. Back in May of 2016, this group met in Nice, France, for a workshop dedicated to projects and techniques related to Jupiter observations.
Among other items discussed was the limitations that missions like Juno have to deal with. While it is capable of taking very-high resolution images of Jupiter, these images are highly specific in nature. And before a team of mission scientists are able to color-correct them and stitch them together to create panoramas, etc., they are not always what you might call “visually stunning”.
However, Earth-based observatories are not hampered by this restriction, and can take multiple images of a planet over time that capture it as a whole. And thanks to the availability of sophisticated telescopes and imaging software, amateur astronomers are capable of making important contributions in this regard. And far from these being strictly for scientific purposes, there is also the added benefit of public engagement.
“This has been a very technical and scientifically correct project,” said Rosen, “but as a photographer and digital artist I also wanted to create a work of art that would inspire and appeal to people who are fascinated by the universe but who are not necessarily into astronomy.”
Of course, this does not detract from the scientific value that this film has. For example, it showcases the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere in a way that is scientifically accurate. Hence why Ricardo Hueso Alonso – a physicist at the University of Basque Country and a member of the Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory (PVOL) – plans to use the maps to measure Jupiter’s wind speeds at different latitudes.
On top of its artistic and scientific merit, “A Journey to Jupiter” also serves as a testament to the skill and capability of the today’s amateur astronomers and planetary photographers. And of course, it draws attention to the efforts of space missions such as Juno, which is currently skimming the clouds of Jupiter to obtain the most comprehensive information about the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field to date.
Not surprisingly, this is not the first film by Rosen that combines scientific accuracy and fast-motion visuals. The short film Voyager 3, released back in June of 2014, was an homage by Rosen and six other Swedish amateur astronomers to the Voyager 1 mission. As the probe made its 28-day final approach to Jupiter in 1979, it snapped what were the most detailed images of Jupiter at the time.
These images helped to improve our understanding of the gas giant, its atmosphere, and its moons. Among other things, hey revealed the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and that the Great Red Spot had changed color since the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions had flown by in 1973 and 74. Produced 35 years later, Voyager 3 was an attempt to recreate this historic event using images taken by Swedish amateur astronomers using their own ground-based telescopes.
Over the course of 90 days, Rosen and his colleagues captured one million frames of Jupiter, which resulted in 560 still images of the planet. These were then stitched together using a series of software programs (Winjupos, Photoshop CS6, Fantamorph, and StarryNightPro+) to create a simulation that gives the impression of a probe approaching the planet – i.e. like a third Voyager mission, hence the name of the film.
“As Jupiter was ideally positioned high in the sky in 2013-2014 for us living far up in the northern hemisphere, I decided that it was the right moment to give it a try, so I contacted 6 other amateurs on our local forum that shared my passion for the planets,” Rosen said. “We photographed Jupiter as often as we could during a 3-month period and I took care of the processing of the images which took me a total of 6 months.”
It is an exciting time to be alive. Not only are a greater number of national space agencies taking part in the exploration of the Solar System; but more than ever, citizen scientists, amateurs and members of the general public are able to participate in a way that was never before possible.
To view more work by Peter Rosen, be sure to check out his page at Vimeo.
Further Reading: NASA
Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?
Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.
As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?”
We’re always talking about Pluto, or Saturn or Mars. But nobody ever seems to talk about Jupiter any more. Why is that? I mean, it’s the largest planet in the Solar System. 318 times the mass of the Earth has got to count for something, right? Right?
Jupiter is one of the most important places in the Solar System. The planet itself is impressive; with ancient cyclonic storms larger than the Earth, or a magnetosphere so powerful it defies comprehension.
One of the most compelling reasons to visit Jupiter is because of its moons. Europa, Callisto and Ganymede might all contain vast oceans of liquid water underneath icy shells. And as you probably know, wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life.
And so, the icy moons of Jupiter are probably the best place to look for life in the entire Solar System.
And yet, as I record this video in early 2016, there are no spacecraft at Jupiter or its moons. In fact, there haven’t been any there for years. The last spacecraft to visit Jupiter was NASA’s New Horizons in 2007. Mars is buzzing with orbiters and rovers, we just got close up pictures of Pluto! and yet we haven’t seen Jupiter close up in almost 10 years. What’s going on?
Part of the problem is that Jupiter is really far away, and it takes a long time to get there.
How long? Let’s take a look at all the spacecraft that have ever made this journey.
The first spacecraft to ever cross the gulf from the Earth to Jupiter was NASA’s Pioneer 10. It launched on March 3, 1972 and reached on December 3, 1973. That’s a total of 640 days of flight time.
But Pioneer 10 was just flying by, on its way to explore the outer Solar System. It came within 130,000 km of the planet, took the first close up pictures ever taken of Jupiter, and then continued on into deep space for another 11 years before NASA lost contact.
Pioneer 11 took off a year later, and arrived a year later. It made the journey in 606 days, making a much closer flyby, getting within 21,000 kilometers of Jupiter, and visiting Saturn too.
Next came the Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 took only 546 days, arriving on March 5, 1979, and Voyager 2 took 688 days.
So, if you’re going to do a flyby, you’ll need about 550-650 days to make the journey.
But if you actually want to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter, you’ll need to take a much slower journey. The only spacecraft to ever stick around Jupiter was NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which launched on October 18, 1989.
Instead of taking the direct path to Jupiter, it made two gravitational assisting flybys of Earth and one of Venus to pick up speed, finally arriving at Jupiter on December 8, 1995. That’s a total of 2,242 days.
So why did Galileo take so much longer to get to Jupiter? It’s because you need to be going slow enough that when you reach Jupiter, you can actually enter orbit around the planet, and not just speed on past.
And now, after this long period of Jupiterlessness, we’re about to have another spacecraft arrive at the massive planet and go into orbit. NASA’s Juno spacecraft was launched back on August 5, 2011 and it’s been buzzing around the inner Solar System, building up the velocity to make the journey to Jupiter.
It did a flyby of Earth back in 2013, and if everything goes well, Juno will make its orbital insertion into the Jovian system on July 4, 2016. Total flight time: 1,795 days.
Once again, we’ll have a spacecraft observing Jupiter and its moon.s
This is just the beginning. There are several more missions to Jupiter in the works. The European Space Agency will be launching the Jupiter Icy Moons Mission in 2022, which will take nearly 8 years to reach Jupiter by 2030.
NASA’s Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission [Editor’s note: formerly known as the Europa Clipper] will probably launch in the same timeframe, and spend its time orbiting Europa, trying to get a better understand the environment on Europa. It probably won’t be able to detect any life down there, beneath the ice, but it’ll figure out exactly where the ocean starts.
So, how long does it take to get to Jupiter? Around 600 days if you want to just do a flyby and aren’t planning to stick around, or about 2,000 days if you want to actually get into orbit.
For thousands of years, astronomers have watched comets travel close to Earth and light up the night sky. In time, these observations led to a number of paradoxes. For instance, where were these comets all coming from? And if their surface material vaporizes as they approach the Sun (thus forming their famous halos), they must formed farther away, where they would have existed there for most of their lifespans.
In time, these observations led to the theory that far beyond the Sun and planets, there exists a large cloud of icy material and rock where most of these comets come from. This existence of this cloud, which is known as the Oort Cloud (after its principal theoretical founder), remains unproven. But from the many short and long-period comets that are believed to have come from there, astronomers have learned a great deal about it structure and composition.
The Oort Cloud is a theoretical spherical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals that is believed to surround the Sun at a distance of up to around 100,000 AU (2 ly). This places it in interstellar space, beyond the Sun’s Heliosphere where it defines the cosmological boundary between the Solar System and the region of the Sun’s gravitational dominance.
Like the Kuiper Belt and the Scattered Disc, the Oort Cloud is a reservoir of trans-Neptunian objects, though it is over a thousands times more distant from our Sun as these other two. The idea of a cloud of icy infinitesimals was first proposed in 1932 by Estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik, who postulated that long-period comets originated in an orbiting cloud at the outermost edge of the Solar System.
In 1950, the concept was resurrected by Jan Oort, who independently hypothesized its existence to explain the behavior of long-term comets. Although it has not yet been proven through direct observation, the existence of the Oort Cloud is widely accepted in the scientific community.
Structure and Composition:
The Oort Cloud is thought to extend from between 2,000 and 5,000 AU (0.03 and 0.08 ly) to as far as 50,000 AU (0.79 ly) from the Sun, though some estimates place the outer edge as far as 100,000 and 200,000 AU (1.58 and 3.16 ly). The Cloud is thought to be comprised of two regions – a spherical outer Oort Cloud of 20,000 – 50,000 AU (0.32 – 0.79 ly), and disc-shaped inner Oort (or Hills) Cloud of 2,000 – 20,000 AU (0.03 – 0.32 ly).
The outer Oort cloud may have trillions of objects larger than 1 km (0.62 mi), and billions that measure 20 kilometers (12 mi) in diameter. Its total mass is not known, but – assuming that Halley’s Comet is a typical representation of outer Oort Cloud objects – it has the combined mass of roughly 3×1025 kilograms (6.6×1025 pounds), or five Earths.
Based on the analyses of past comets, the vast majority of Oort Cloud objects are composed of icy volatiles – such as water, methane, ethane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and ammonia. The appearance of asteroids thought to be originating from the Oort Cloud has also prompted theoretical research that suggests that the population consists of 1-2% asteroids.
Earlier estimates placed its mass up to 380 Earth masses, but improved knowledge of the size distribution of long-period comets has led to lower estimates. The mass of the inner Oort Cloud, meanwhile, has yet to be characterized. The contents of both Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud are known as Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), because the objects of both regions have orbits that that are further from the Sun than Neptune’s orbit.
The Oort cloud is thought to be a remnant of the original protoplanetary disc that formed around the Sun approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The most widely accepted hypothesis is that the Oort cloud’s objects initially coalesced much closer to the Sun as part of the same process that formed the planets and minor planets, but that gravitational interaction with young gas giants such as Jupiter ejected them into extremely long elliptic or parabolic orbits.
Recent research by NASA suggests that a large number of Oort cloud objects are the product of an exchange of materials between the Sun and its sibling stars as they formed and drifted apart. It is also suggested that many – possibly the majority – of Oort cloud objects were not formed in close proximity to the Sun.
Alessandro Morbidelli of the Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur has conducted simulations on the evolution of the Oort cloud from the beginnings of the Solar System to the present. These simulations indicate that gravitational interaction with nearby stars and galactic tides modified cometary orbits to make them more circular. This is offered as an explanation for why the outer Oort Cloud is nearly spherical in shape while the Hills cloud, which is bound more strongly to the Sun, has not acquired a spherical shape.
Recent studies have shown that the formation of the Oort cloud is broadly compatible with the hypothesis that the Solar System formed as part of an embedded cluster of 200–400 stars. These early stars likely played a role in the cloud’s formation, since the number of close stellar passages within the cluster was much higher than today, leading to far more frequent perturbations.
Comets are thought to have two points of origin within the Solar System. They start as infinitesimals in the Oort Cloud and then become comets when passing stars knock some of them out of their orbits, sending into a long-term orbit that take them into the inner solar system and out again.
Short-period comets have orbits that last up to two hundred years while the orbits of long-period comets can last for thousands of years. Whereas short-period comets are believed to have emerged from either the Kuiper Belt or the scattered disc, the accepted hypothesis is that long-period comets originate in the Oort Cloud. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.
For example, there are two main varieties of short-period comet: Jupiter-family comets and Halley-family comets. Halley-family comets, named for their prototype (Halley’s Comet) are unusual in that although they are short in period, they are believed to have originated from the Oort cloud. Based on their orbits, it is suggested they were once long-period comets that were captured by the gravity of a gas giant and sent into the inner Solar System.
Because the Oort Cloud is so much farther out than the Kuiper Belt, the region remained unexplored and largely undocumented. Space probes have yet to reach the area of the Oort cloud, and Voyager 1 – the fastest and farthest of the interplanetary space probes currently exiting the Solar System – is not likely to provide any information on it.
At its current speed, Voyager 1 will reach the Oort cloud in about 300 years, and will will take about 30,000 years to pass through it. However, by around 2025, the probe’s radioisotope thermoelectric generators will no longer supply enough power to operate any of its scientific instruments. The other four probes currently escaping the Solar System – Voyager 2, Pioneer 10 and 11, and New Horizons – will also be non-functional when they reach the Oort cloud.
Exploring the Oort Cloud presents numerous difficulties, most of which arise from the fact that it is incredible distant from Earth. By the time a robotic probe could actually reach it and begin exploring the area in earnest, centuries will have passed here on Earth. Not only would those who had sent it out in the first place be long dead, but humanity will have most likely invented far more sophisticated probes or even manned craft in the meantime.
Still, studies can be (and are) conducted by examining the comets that it periodically spits out, and long-range observatories are likely to make some interesting discoveries from this region of space in the coming years. It’s a big cloud. Who knows what we might find lurking in there?
We have many interesting articles about the Oort Cloud and Solar System for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how big the Solar System is, and one on the diameter of the Solar System. And here’s all you need to know about Halley’s Comet and Beyond Pluto.
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 book Astronomie 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.
As Neptune orbits the Sun, Triton’s polar regions take turns facing the Sun, resulting in seasonal changes as one pole, then the other, moves into the sunlight. Such changes were observed in April of 2010 by astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.
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 the Observatory also has an interview with Emily Lakdawalla, the senior editor and planetary evangelist for the Planetary Society, titled “Where Should We Look for Life in the Solar System?”
Humans have been sending spacecraft to other planets, as well as asteroid and comets, for decades. But rarely have any of these ventured into the outer reaches of our Solar System. In fact, the last time a probe reached beyond the orbit of Saturn to explore the worlds of Neptune, Uranus, Pluto and beyond was with the Voyager 2 mission, which concluded back in 1989.
But with the New Horizons mission, humanity is once again peering into the outer Solar System and learning much about its planets, dwarf planets, planetoids, moons and assorted objects. And as of July 14th, 2015, it made its historic rendezvous with Pluto, a world that has continued to surprise and mystify astronomers since it was first discovered.
In 1980, after Voyager 1‘s flyby of Saturn, NASA scientists began to consider the possibility of using Saturn to slingshot the probe towards Pluto to conduct a flyby by 1986. This would not be the case, as NASA decided instead to conduct a flyby of Saturn’s moon of Titan – which they considered to be a more scientific objective – thus making a slingshot towards Pluto impossible.
Because no mission to Pluto was planned by any space agency at the time, it would be years before any missions to Pluto could be contemplated. However, after Voyager 2′s flyby of Neptune and Triton in 1989, scientists once again began contemplating a mission that would take a spacecraft to Pluto for the sake of studying the Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
In May 1989, a group of scientists, including Alan Stern and Fran Bagenal, formed an alliance called the “Pluto Underground”. Committed to the idea of mounting an exploratory mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, this group began lobbying NASA and the US government to make it this plan a reality. Combined with pressure from the scientific community at large, NASA began looking into mission concepts by 1990.
During the course of the late 1990s, a number of Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) were discovered, confirming the existence of the Kuiper Belt and spurring interest in a mission to the region. This led NASA to instruct the JPL to re-purpose the mission as a Pluto and KBO flyby. However, the mission was scrapped by 2000, owing to budget constraints.
Backlash over the cancellation led NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to create the New Frontiers program which began accepting mission proposals. Stamatios “Tom” Krimigis, head of the Applied Physics Laboratory’s (APL) space division, came together with Alan Stern to form the New Horizons team. Their proposal was selected from a number of submissions, and officially selected for funding by the New Frontiers program in Nov. 2001.
Despite additional squabbles over funding with the Bush administration, renewed pressure from the scientific community allowed the New Horizons team managed to secure their funding by the summer of 2002. With a commitment of $650 million for the next fourteen years, Stern’s team was finally able to start building the spacecraft and its instruments.
New Horizons was planned as a voyage to the only unexplored planet in the Solar System, and was originally slated for launch in January 2006 and arrival at Pluto in 2015. Alan Stern was selected as the mission’s principal investigator, and construction of the spacecraft was handled primarily by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, with various contractor facilities involved in the navigation of the spacecraft.
Meanwhile, the US Naval Observatory (USNO) Flagstaff Station – in conjunction with NASA and JPL – was responsible for performing navigational position data and related celestial frames. Coincidentally, the UNSO Flagstaff station was where the photographic plates that led to the discovery of Pluto’s moon Charon came from.
In addition to its compliment of scientific instruments (listed below), there are several cultural artifacts traveling aboard the spacecraft. These include a collection of 434,738 names stored on a compact disc, a piece of Scaled Composites’s SpaceShipOne, and a flag of the USA, along with other mementos. In addition, about 30 g (1 oz) of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard the spacecraft, to commemorate his discovery of Pluto in 1930.
The New Horizons science payload consists of seven instruments. They are (in alphabetically order):
- Alice: An ultraviolet imaging spectrometer responsible for analyzing composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
- LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) a telescopic camera that obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s farside and provides high resolution geologic data.
- PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) an energetic particle spectrometer which measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
- Ralph: A visible and infrared imager/spectrometer that provides color, composition and thermal maps.
- REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) a device that measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.
- SDC: (Student Dust Counter) built and operated by students, this instrument measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.
- SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) a solar wind and plasma spectrometer that measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.
Due to a series of weather-related delays, the New Horizons mission launched on January 19th, 2006, two days later than originally scheduled. The spacecraft took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 15:00 EST (19:00 UTC) atop an Atlas V 551 rocket. This was the first launch of this particular rocket configuration, which has a third stage added to increase the heliocentric (escape) speed.
The spacecraft left Earth faster than any spacecraft to date, achieving a launch velocity of 16.5 km/s. It took only nine hours to reach the Moon’s orbit, passing lunar orbit before midnight (EST) on the same day it was launched. It has not, however, broken Voyager 1‘s record – which is currently traveling at 17.145 km/s (61,720 km/h, 38,350 mph) relative to the Sun – for being the fastest spacecraft to leave the Solar System.
Inner Solar System:
Between January and March, 2006, mission controllers guided the probe through a series of trajectory-correction maneuvers (TCMs). During the week of February 20th, 2006, controllers conducted in-flight tests on three of the major on board science instruments. On April 7th, the spacecraft passed the orbit of Mars, moving at roughly 21 km/s (76,000 km/h; 47,000 mph) away from the Sun.
At this point in its journey, the spacecraft had reached a distance of 243 million kilometers from the Sun, and approximately 93.4 million km from Earth. On June 13th, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft passed the tiny asteroid 132524 APL at a distance of 101,867 km (63,297 mi) when it was closest.
Using the Ralph instrument, New Horizons was able to capture images of the asteroid, estimating to be 2.5 km (1.6 mi) in diameter. The spacecraft also successfully tracked the asteroid from June 10th-12th, 2006, allowing the mission team to test the spacecraft’s ability to track rapidly moving objects.
From September 21st-24th, New Horizons managed to capture its first images of Pluto while testing the LORRI instruments. These images, which were taken from a distance of approximately 4,200,000,000 km (2.6×109 mi) or 28.07 AU and released on November 28th, confirmed the spacecraft’s ability to track distant targets.
Outer Solar System:
On September 4th, 2006, New Horizons took its first pictures of Jupiter at a distance of 291 million kilometers (181 million miles). The following January, it conducted more detailed surveys of the system, capturing an infrared image of the moon Callisto, and several black and white images of Jupiter itself.
By February 28th, 2007, at 23:17 EST (03:17, UTC) New Horizons made its closest approach to Europa, at a distance of 2,964,860 km (1,842,278 mi). At 01:53:40 EST (05:43:40 UTC), the spacecraft made its flyby of Jupiter, at a distance of 2.3 million km (1.4 million mi) and received a gravity assist.
The Jupiter flyby increased New Horizons‘ speed by 4 km/s (14,000 km/h; 9,000 mph), accelerating the probe to a velocity of 23 km/s (83,000 km/h; 51,000 mph) relative to the Sun and shortening its voyage to Pluto by three years.
The encounter with Jupiter not only provided NASA with the opportunity to photograph the planet using the latest equipment, it also served as a dress rehearsal for the spacecraft’s encounter with Pluto. As well as testing the imaging instruments, it also allowed the mission team to test the communications link and the spacecraft’s memory buffer.
One of the main goals during the Jupiter encounter was observing its atmospheric conditions and analyzing the structure and composition of its clouds. Heat-induced lightning strikes in the polar regions and evidence of violent storm activity were both observed. In addition, the Little Red Spot, was imaged from up close for the first time. The New Horizons spacecraft also took detailed images of Jupiter’s faint ring system. Traveling through Jupiter’s magnetosphere, the spacecraft also managed to collect valuable particle readings.
The flyby of the Jovian systems also gave scientists the opportunity to examine the structure and motion of Io’s famous lava plumes. New Horizons measured the plumes coming from the Tvashtar volcano, which reached an altitude of up to 330 km from the surface, while infrared signatures confirmed the presence of 36 more volcanoes on the moon.
Callisto’s surface was also analyzed with LEISA, revealing how lighting and viewing conditions affect infrared spectrum readings of its surface water ice. Data gathered on minor moons such as Amalthea also allowed NASA scientists to refine their orbit solutions.
After passing Jupiter, New Horizons spent most of its journey towards Pluto in hibernation mode. During this time, New Horizons crossed the orbit of Saturn (June 8, 2008) and Uranus on (March 18, 2011). In June 2014, the spacecraft emerged from hibernation and the team began conducting instrument calibrations and a course correction,. By August 24th, 2014, it crossed Neptune’s orbit on its way to Pluto.
Rendezvous with Pluto:
Distant-encounter operations at Pluto began on January 4th, 2015. Between January 25th to 31st, the approaching probe took several images of Pluto, which were released by NASA on February 12th. These photos, which were taken at a distance of more than 203,000,000 km (126,000,000 mi) showed Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
Investigators compiled a series of images of the moons Nix and Hydra taken from January 27th through February 8th, 2015, beginning at a range of 201,000,000 km (125,000,000 mi), while Kerberos and Styx were captured by photos taken on April 25.
On July 4th, 2015, NASA lost contact with New Horizons after it experienced a software anomaly and went into safe mode. On the following day, NASA announced that they had determined it to be the result of a timing flaw in a command sequence. By July 6th, the glitch had been fixed and the probe had exited safe mode and began making its approach.
The New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto at 07:49:57 EDT (11:49:57 UTC) on July 14th, 2015, and then Charon at 08:03:50 EDT (12:03:50 UTC). Telemetries confirming a successful flyby and a healthy spacecraft reached Earth on 20:52:37 EDT (00:52:37 UTC).
During the flyby, the probe captured the clearest pictures of Pluto to date, and full analyses of the data obtained is expected to take years to process. The spacecraft is currently traveling at a speed of 14.52 km/s (9.02 mi/s) relative to the Sun and at 13.77 km/s (8.56 mi/s) relative to Pluto.
With its flyby of Pluto now complete, the New Horizons probe is now on its way towards the Kuiper Belt. The goal here is to study one or two other Kuiper Belt Objects, provided suitable KBOs are close to New Horizons‘ flight path.
Three objects have since been selected as potential targets, which were provisionally designated PT1 (“potential target 1”), PT2 and PT3 by the New Horizons team. These have since been re-designated as 2014 MU69 (PT1), 2014 OS393 (PT2), and 2014 PN70 (PT3).
All of these objects have an estimated diameter of 30–55 km, are too small to be seen by ground telescopes, and are 43–44 AU from the Sun, which would put the encounters in the 2018–2019 period. All are members of the “cold” (low-inclination, low-eccentricity) classical Kuiper Belt, and thus very different from Pluto.
Even though it was launched far faster than any outward probe before it, New Horizons will never overtake either Voyager 1 or Voyager 2 as the most distant human-made object from Earth. But then again, it doesn’t need to, given that what it was sent out to study all lies closer to home.
What’s more, the probe has provided astronomers with extensive and updated data on many of planets and moons in our Solar System – not the least of which are the Jovian and Plutonian systems. And last, but certainly not least, New Horizons is the first spacecraft to have it made it out to such a distance since the Voyager program.
And so we say so long and good luck to New Horizons, not to mention thanks for providing us with the best images of Pluto anyone has ever seen! We can only hope she fares well as she makes its way into the Kuiper Belt and advances our knowledge of the outer Solar System even farther.
We have many interesting articles about the New Horizons spacecraft and Pluto here on Universe Today. For example, here are some Interesting Facts About Pluto, How Long Does it Take to Get to Pluto, Why Pluto is No Longer Considered a Planet, and Is There Life on Pluto?
Astronomy Cast also has some fascinating episodes on Pluto, including On Pluto’s Doorstep – Live Hangout with New Horizons Team
And be sure to check out the New Horizons mission homepage at NASA.