Triton seen by Voyager 2 in 1989. © NASA/JPL/USGS

Triton from the Earth

Hi there! Today we speak about Triton. Triton is something unique in the Solar System. It is a large satellite of Neptune, which has almost no mid-sized satellite, contrary to Saturn and Uranus. Several studies show us that Triton could have been a cuckoo, i.e. initially a Trans-Neptunian Objects, which has been trapped by the gravitational field of Neptune, and which is massive enough to have ejected the mid-sized satellites.
Triton has been visited only once, by NASA’s Voyager 2 in 1989. This was only a fly-by, so we have images of only 40% of the surface. But the development of Earth-based instruments now permits to get data from the Earth, even if the apparent magnitude of Triton is 13.47 (Neptune is very far away…).

This is the opportunity to present Triton’s surface ices: Distribution, temperature and mixing state from VLT/SINFONI observations, by F. Merlin, E. Lellouch, E. Quirico and B. Schmitt, all based in France, even if they used European facilities based in Chile. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

Triton’s facts

The table below gives you some numbers.

Discovery 1846
Radius 1,353 km
Semimajor axis 354,759 km
Orbital period 5.88 days
Eccentricity 2×10-5
Inclination 157°

You can see first that Triton has been discovered in October 1846, by the British astronomer William Lassell. The discovery happened 10 days after the discovery of Neptune, and this is of course not by chance. When the discovery of a planet is made and announced, it is much easier, or much less difficult, to re-observe it, since you know where to point your telescope. So, Neptune has been reobserved, and Lassell saw this point following Neptune. You can distinguish a satellite from a background star by the fact that the satellite follows the planet in its apparent motion. This was Triton. And Triton was the only known satellite of Neptune during more than one century, until the discovery of Nereid by Gerard Kuiper in 1949.

As I said, Triton is pretty large, and its orbit is almost circular, as for many natural satellites of the giant planets. The tidal interaction with the parent planet tends to circularize the orbit, unless the eccentricity is excited by the action of another satellite… which cannot be the case around Neptune, since no satellite is heavy enough to move Triton.

A trapped object…

The interesting point about the dynamics of Triton is its orbital inclination. While natural satellites usually orbit close to the equatorial plane of their planet, Triton has a very large inclination, and its orbit is retrograde with respect to the rotation of Neptune. Usually, the natural satellites are formed with the planet, in the proto-planetary nebula, which is pretty flat… this is why their inclinations should be small. The inclination of Triton suggests it was not formed in situ, but has been trapped instead. Several studies have simulated this phenomenon, see e.g. your favorite blog.

…visited by Voyager 2

NASA’s Voyager 2 has been launched in August 1977 from Cape Canaveral, and it benefited from a favorable geometrical configuration of the planets. This virtual alignment permitted to fly by Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus in 1986, and Neptune in 1989. Voyager 2 is still operating, as an interstellar mission.

Only a fly by may be frustrating, but for a spacecraft to be inserted an orbit around a planet, it must reach it slowly enough… which means take enough time to reach it. Neptune is so far away that we could not wait. So, its closest approach to Neptune was on August 25, 1989, and the closest to Triton 3 days later, imaging 40% of its surface (see video below, made by Paul Schenk, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, TX, USA).

It revealed an active surface, i.e. few craters, which means that the surface is renewing, and geological features, craters, ridges, plains, maculae… and even volcanic plumes. It also confirmed the presence of an atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Triton

Triton has a very tenuous atmosphere, which pressure is 70,000 times lower than the one of the Earth, i.e. some 14 μbar. It is dominated by nitrogen, and extends 800 kilometers above its surface. Methane and carbon monoxide are also present. Its temperature is around 40 K, and Voyager 2 measured winds from the west from the surface to an altitude of 8 km, where the winds invert their directions, i.e. from east to west.

This atmosphere is probably the result of outgassing of surface material and volcanic activity (geysers). It can be seen as an equilibrium between a solid phase at the surface, and a gaseous one in the atmosphere, of some of its constituents. The study I present today analyses the chemical elements present at the surface, which interact with the atmosphere. The used facility is the instrument SINFONI, on the Very Large Telescope (Paranal Observatory, Chile).

THE VLT/SINFONI instrument

The Very Large Telescope, VLT for short, is a facility operated by the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama desert, Chile. It benefits from a very favorable sky, at an altitude of 2,635 meters, and consists of 4 refractors, Antu, Kueyen, Melipal, and Yepun, each with a primary mirror of 8.2 meters.

SINFONI, for Spectrograph for Integral Field Observations in the Near Infrared, operates on Yepun, and observes in the near-infrared, i.e. at wavelengths between 1 and 2.45 μm. You can find below its first light in July 2004, observing the star HD 130163.

"First Light" "data cube" spectrum obtained with SINFONI on the bright star HD 130163 on July 9, 2004, as seen on the science data computer screen. This 7th-magnitude A0 V star was observed in the near-infrared H-band with a moderate seeing of 0.8 arcsec. The width of the slitlets in this image is 0.25 arcsec. The exposure time was 1 second. © ESO
“First Light” “data cube” spectrum obtained with SINFONI on the bright star HD 130163 on July 9, 2004, as seen on the science data computer screen. This 7th-magnitude A0 V star was observed in the near-infrared H-band with a moderate seeing of 0.8 arcsec. The width of the slitlets in this image is 0.25 arcsec. The exposure time was 1 second. © ESO

As a spectrometer, it decomposes the light it observes following its wavelengths. You can find above a spectrum, on which you can see several minimums. These minimums are absorption lines, which reveal the presence of a chemical element. And this is the idea: the authors decomposed the Solar light reflected by the surface of Triton, to detect the chemical elements constituting it.

Spectral measurements

The authors made 5 observations between 2010 and 2013, each of them lasting between 40 and 55 minutes. They supplemented their data set with two observations dating back to 1995, and one to 2008. The 1995 observations were made at Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.
Two spectral bands were investigated: the H band (1.5 to 1.8 μm) and the K band (2 to 2.45 μm). Once the data are acquired, they must be corrected from the influence of the Earth atmosphere and the one of Triton, which have themselves constituents which absorb the light. Pretty easy for correcting the telluric lines, however the authors admit that the correction from Triton’s atmosphere is not entirely satisfactory, given the accuracy of data we dispose on. In particular, this correction might add an artificial signature of methane.

After these corrections, and some that I do not detail, you have the spectra… What do to with that?

Lab experiments to understand the data

The spectrum should look like something we know. We know the absorption lines of methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen… but not necessarily under Triton’s conditions. The temperature at the surface should be around 40 K, i.e. -235°C / -390°F, to permit the coexistence of the solid and gaseous phases of these elements, without liquid phase, with a pressure of 14μbar. And when you look at the spectrum, you do not only have the location of the absorption lines, but also their amplitudes, which depend on many parameters, like the temperature, the grain size, the relative fraction of these components, and corrections accounting for instrumental constraints.
To get these parameters, the authors made several lab experiments in Grenoble (France), got plenty of spectra, and fitted their observations of Triton on them. Actually, lab experiments have been made in the past and used to previous studies, but in the present case this wasn’t enough, given the resolution of the new data.

And now, the results!

Results

The results are essentially a confirmation of previous studies, but with a better resolution, and new data, which gives access to time variations of the composition. Actually, the variations of the distance to the Sun results in variations of temperature, which perturb the equilibrium between the solid and the gaseous phases.

Regarding the different constituents:

  • The methane (CH4) is mostly in diluted form.
  • At least two populations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are present, with grain sizes of 5 μm and 25 μm, respectively.
  • The carbon monoxide (CO) is mostly present in diluted form into nitrogen ice.
  • The nitrogen (N2) ice temperature is 37.5±1 K.

The study confirms already known longitudinal variations of the nitrogen and carbon monoxide surface abundances, and suggests latitudinal and/or temporal variations.

This may be anecdotal, but the authors have detected two unexpected absorption lines, at 2.102 μm and 2.239 μm. The first one being present in one spectrum only, while the last one is detected on the three spectra. What do they mean? We do not know yet.

So, you see, it is possible to get data on Triton from our Earth. But a space mission to Neptune would be much more fruitful. But this is a very strong challenge. Even a mission to Uranus seems to become difficult to fund. Some scientists fight for that. But anyway, do not forget that you will be much older than you are now when such a mission would reach its destination, if launched now…

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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