Using the CRIRES instrument on ESOs Very Large Telescope, a team of astronomers have confirmed that summer is in full swing in the southern hemisphere of Neptune's largest moon Triton.
"We have found real evidence that the Sun still makes its presence felt on Triton, even from so far away. This icy moon actually has seasons just as we do on Earth, but they change far more slowly," says Emmanuel Lellouch, the lead author of the paper reporting these results in Astronomy&Astrophysics.
On Triton, where the average surface temperature is about minus 235 degrees Celsius, it is currently summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern. As Triton's southern hemisphere warms up, a thin layer of frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide on Triton's surface sublimates into gas, thickening the icy atmosphere as the season progresses during Neptune's 165-year orbit around the Sun. A season on Triton lasts a little over 40 years, and Triton passed the southern summer solstice in 2000.
This is an artist's impression of how Triton, Neptunes largest moon, might look from high above its surface. The distant Sun appears at the upper-left and the blue crescent of Neptune right of center
(Photo Credit: ESO/L. Calçada)
Based on the amount of gas measured, Lellouch and his colleagues estimate that Triton's atmospheric pressure may have risen by a factor of four compared to the measurements made by Voyager 2 in 1989, when it was still spring on the giant moon. The atmospheric pressure on Triton is now between 40 and 65 microbars — 20 000 times less than on Earth.
Carbon monoxide was known to be present as ice on the surface, but researchers discovered that Triton's upper surface layer is enriched with carbon monoxide ice by about a factor of ten compared to the deeper layers, and that it is this upper "film" that feeds the atmosphere.
While the majority of Triton's atmosphere is nitrogen (much like on Earth), the methane in the atmosphere, first detected by Voyager 2, and only now confirmed in this study from Earth, plays an important role as well. "Climate and atmospheric models of Triton have to be revisited now, now that we have found carbon monoxide and re-measured the methane," says co-author Catherine de Bergh.
Of Neptune's 13 moons, Triton is by far the largest, and, at 2700 kilometres in diameter (or three quarters the Earth's Moon), is the seventh largest moon in the whole Solar System. Since its discovery in 1846, Triton has fascinated astronomers thanks to its geologic activity, the many different types of surface ices, such as frozen nitrogen as well as water and dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide), and its unique retrograde motion.
Observing the atmosphere of Triton, which is roughly 30 times further from the Sun than Earth, is not easy. In the 1980s, astronomers theorised that the atmosphere on Neptune's moon might be as thick as that of Mars (7 millibars). It wasn't until Voyager 2 passed the planet in 1989 that the atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, at an actual pressure of 14 microbars, 70 000 times less dense than the atmosphere on Earth, was measured. Since then, ground-based observations have been limited.
Observations of stellar occultations (a phenomenon that occurs when a Solar System body passes in front of a star and blocks its light) indicated that Triton's surface pressure was increasing in the 1990's. It took the development of the Cryogenic High-Resolution Infrared Echelle Spectrograph (CRIRES) at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to provide the team the chance to perform a far more detailed study of Triton's atmosphere. "We needed the sensitivity and capability of CRIRES to take very detailed spectra to look at the very tenuous atmosphere," says co-author Ulli Käufl.
This is just the first step for astronomers using CRIRES to understand the physics of distant bodies in the Solar System. "We can now start monitoring the atmosphere and learn a lot about the seasonal evolution of Triton over decades," Lellouch says.
Citation: Lellouch et al., 'Detection of CO in Triton's atmosphere and the nature of surface-atmosphere interactions. Astronomy and Astrophysics', April 2010, 512L8; doi: 10.1051/0004-6361/201014339
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- What Lies Beneath West Antarctica?
- Exodus 2100: Due To Climate Change
- Scientists Discover Oral Sex In Spiders
- Evidence Points To Widespread Loss Of Ocean Oxygen By 2030s
- The Geology Of Wine
- How To Make Women's Tennis More Competitive
- Professor Frenkel: Why Shouldn't We Drop Algebra From Our Education System?
- " Only two scenarios? Which of the failed climate models were these predictions based on? I would..."
- "Last references - My three contributed papers for the Proceedings of the INCFP 2015 Conference..."
- "Your case is common, Frumious. But multi-variable calculus is a low-level eighteenth century applied..."
- "Up until college, the educational system did their best to make me fear and loath math. The constant..."
- "Choosing just two of many issues: You can't get what 2+3 or 2*3 are without just taking them from..."
- 3 Reasons Aerial Pesticides Are Not Causing Autism
- Most Stores Refuse E-Cigarette Sales To Minors
- Vitamin C Conundrum for the Organic Crowd
- Newsweek Journalist Loses His Mind, Time-Traveling Radioactivity And More Media Links
- This Single-Celled Organism Is Capable Of Learning
- Study Says Bilingual Kids’ Brains Are Smarter & Faster