Triton: Neptune's Odd Moon

The crescent planet Neptune and its crescent moon Triton
The crescent planet Neptune and its crescent moon Triton, as seen by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989.
Credit: Voyager 2, NASA
The crescent planet Neptune and its crescent moon Triton
The crescent planet Neptune and its crescent moon Triton, as seen by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989.
Credit: Voyager 2, NASA

Triton is the largest of Neptune's moons. Discovered in 1846 by British astronomer William Lassell – just weeks after Neptune itself was found – the moon showed some strange characteristics as astronomers learned more about it.

To NASA's knowledge, Triton is the only moon in the solar system that orbits in a direction opposite to the rotation of its planet. Additionally, its surface is a study of contrasts, with smooth plains appearing to be right next to cratered surfaces.

No spacecraft has gone to Neptune since the 1980s, but telescopes are capturing new data on Triton from the ground. A notable recent find was discovering seasons on the moon, using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Discovery and flyby

Triton was found on Oct. 10, 1846, just 17 days after Neptune was discovered. According to NASA, Triton was known simply as "the satellite of Neptune" until 1949, when a second moon (Nereid) was found. All of Neptune's moons, according to International Astronomical Union guidelines, are named after Roman or Greek mythological characters associated with Neptune, Poseidon or oceans.

Astronomers had to wait well over a century to see Triton as more than a dot, however. In 1977, NASA sent two Voyager probes on a one-way trip through the outer solar system, taking advantage of a rare planetary alignment that allowed them to move from one location to the next without using a lot of fuel. Voyager 2 flew by Neptune and its system on Aug. 25, 1989.

Among the spacecraft's most stunning finds: icy volcanism is likely taking place on Triton's surface. Voyager 2 took pictures of "several geyser-like volcanic vents that were apparently spewing nitrogen gas laced with extremely fine, dark particles," NASA later wrote on a website. The agency estimates the particles go as high as five miles (eight kilometers) before flowing downwind and striking the surface.

It also appears that a large portion of the surface has melted. NASA said that is probably because Neptune captured Triton, causing tidal heating that could have left the satellite liquid for at least one billion years.

New discoveries after Voyager 2

Although no spacecraft will go by Neptune's system in the near future, computer models and higher-resolution telescopes on Earth are providing new information about Triton's history and environment. (NASA has also released new pictures of Triton from Voyager 2 at least as late as 2009.)

In 2006, a new model published in Nature suggested Triton was originally a binary system that passed too close to Neptune. The planet then pulled Triton away from its companion, which is possible because one member of the system always moves slower than the other.

Four years later, long-range infrared observations with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope revealed that the thin atmosphere of Triton changes with the seasons. At the time the VLT looked at the planet, it was summer in the southern hemisphere, where the sun's warmth thickened the atmosphere.

Neptune moon Triton in color
This color photo of Neptune's largest moon Triton was obtained by NASA's Voyager 2 probe on Aug. 24, 1989, from 330,000 miles away. The resolution is about 6.2 miles, sufficient to begin to show topographic detail.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Astrobiologists are also considering that Triton could have water under its icy surface. "I think it is extremely likely that a subsurface ammonia-rich ocean exists in Triton," said the University of Maryland's Saswata Hier-Majumder in a 2012 Astrobiology Magazine article republished on “[But] there are a number of uncertainties in our knowledge of Triton's interior and past, which makes it difficult to predict with absolute certainty."

One example: because no one is quite sure of the size of Triton's rocky core, that creates difficulty with calculating the amount of heating produced by the decay of radioactive isotopes, also known as radiogenic heating. More heating would increase the size of the ocean.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.
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