Friday, July 30, 2010

Triton's Shooting Stars

Triton is by far the largest moon in orbit around the planet Neptune and with a diameter of 2700 kilometers; Triton is the seventh largest moon in the Solar System. Interestingly, Triton is the only large moon in the Solar System with a retrograde orbit, whereby it orbits Neptune in the opposite direction to Neptune’s rotation. Triton has a relatively high rock/ice ratio of approximately 70/30 and this composition is remarkably similar to large Kuiper Belt objects such as Pluto and Eris. Because of Triton’s retrograde orbit and its similar composition to objects such as Pluto and Eris, Triton is believed to be a Kuiper Belt object that was captured into orbit around Neptune.

Triton orbits Neptune at a distance of 354800 kilometers and it takes 5 days and 21 hours for Triton to orbit once around Neptune. Like the other large moons in the Solar System, Triton is tidally locked to Neptune where it keeps the same hemisphere oriented towards Neptune at all times. Triton was discovered by British astronomer William Lassell in 1846, only several days after Neptune itself was discovered. The first and only closed-up images of this elusive and far-flung moon of Neptune came on August 1989, after a close fly-by of Triton by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Apart from Saturn’s moon Titan, Neptune’s moon Triton is the only other moon in the Solar System with an appreciable atmosphere. Similar to both the Earth and Titan, nitrogen is the main constituent of Triton’s atmosphere. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Triton is over 50000 times less than the atmospheric pressure at sea-level on the Earth. This is actually equivalent to the atmospheric pressure up in the Earth’s mesosphere at well over 50 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Triton’s extremely frigid and cold environment allows the nitrogen in its atmosphere to be deposited onto the surface as frozen nitrogen. On the surface of Triton, the Sun will appear almost a thousand times dimmer than from the Earth’s surface.

The atmosphere of Triton contains thin clouds of nitrogen ice particles that are located a few kilometers above the surface. Above the clouds of nitrogen ice particles is a haze layer which extends up to 30 kilometers above Triton’s surface. This haze layer is made up of hydrocarbons and nitriles created when ultraviolet light from the Sun breaks down methane in Triton’s atmosphere. The surface of Titan also contains numerous erupting geysers of nitrogen gas. By itself, nitrogen gas is invisible and it is the entrained dust within the nitrogen gas which allows the geysers to be seen as plumes rising from the surface up to a height of 8 kilometers above Triton’s surface. The entrained dust within a plume can be deposited to over a hundred kilometers downwind of the plume and these plumes are responsible for creating the long and dark streaks on the surface of Triton.

Although Triton’s atmosphere is rather tenuous compared to the Earth’s atmosphere, it is still dense enough to ablate micrometeoroids when they pass through. The combination of a micrometeoroid’s orbital velocity around the Sun, the orbital velocity of Triton around Neptune, the orbital velocity of Neptune around the Sun and the gravitational accelerations of both Triton and Neptune, can allow the micrometeoroid to achieve a fast enough impact velocity that will enable the micrometeoroid to be sufficiently heated to visibility by friction with the air molecules in Triton’s atmosphere.

As Triton orbits Neptune, most micrometeoroids will impact the leading hemisphere of Triton and this is where most micrometeoroids can be observed. When a micrometeoroid penetrates an atmosphere, it heats up due to friction with the air molecules in the atmosphere. This causes material to sputter off the surface of the micrometeoroid particle in a process called ablation. Sufficiently strong heating and ablation can enable a micrometeoroid to become a visible meteor.

Due to the thin atmosphere of Triton and the much lower speeds at which micrometeoroids will impact the atmosphere of Triton as compared to the Earth, micrometeoroids can penetrate all the way down to the surface of Triton. This is unlike the Earth where micrometeoroids vaporize entirely high in the atmosphere. On Triton, visible meteor trails can extend all the way down to the surface. Icy micrometeoroids are expected to produce brighter meteor trails than stony micrometeoroids because icy micrometeoroids have a greater rate of ablation and the brightness of a meteor trail is directly related to the rate of ablation of the micrometeoroid.

Additionally, large variation in the brightness of meteors is expected to occur along different phases of Triton’s orbit around Neptune. The brightness of a meteor trail is expected to be the greatest when Triton’s orbital velocity around Neptune adds up most positively with Neptune’s orbital velocity around the Sun. The Neptune-Triton system is unique, because unlike other planet-satellite systems, it features a remarkably large variation in the meteoroid impact velocity onto Triton as a function of Triton’s orbital phase position around Neptune.

In addition to producing visible meteor tails, the ablation of incoming micrometeoroids can deposit metallic atoms and molecules that were once part of the micrometeoroid into the atmosphere of Triton. These metallic atoms and molecules can condense into dust particles in the atmosphere of Triton and these dust particles could serve as nucleation centers for the condensation and formation of cloud and haze particles observed in Triton’s atmosphere. Most of these metallic atoms and molecules will eventually get deposited together with the condensates onto the surface of Triton.