link to Home Page

icon Neptune's Moon

Organization: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Release: 98-110
Hubble Space Telescope Helps Find Evidence that Neptune’s Largest Moon is Warming Up

Observations obtained by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based instruments reveal that Neptune's largest moon, Triton, seems to have heated up significantly since the Voyager spacecraft visited it in 1989. "Since 1989, at least, Triton has been undergoing a period of global warming - percentage-wise, it's a very large increase," said James L. Elliot, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA. The warming trend is causing part of Triton's frozen nitrogen surface to turn into gas, thus making its thin atmosphere denser. Dr. Elliot and his colleagues from MIT, Lowell Observatory, and Williams College published their findings in the June 25 issue of the journal Nature.

Even with the warming, no one is likely to plan a summer vacation on Triton, which is a bit smaller than Earth's moon. The five percent increase means that Triton's temperature has risen from about 37 degrees on the absolute (Kelvin) temperature scale (-392 degrees Fahrenheit) to about 39 degrees Kelvin (-389 degrees Fahrenheit). If Earth experienced a similar change in global temperature over a comparable period, it could lead to significant climatic changes.

Triton, however, is a very different and simpler world than Earth, with a much thinner atmosphere, no oceans, and a surface of frozen nitrogen. But the two share some contributing factors to global warming, such as changes to the Sun's heat output, how much sunlight is absorbed and reflected by their surfaces, and the amount of methane and carbon monoxide (greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere. "With Triton, we can more easily study environmental changes because of its simple, thin atmosphere," Elliot explained. By studying these changes on Triton, the scientists hope to gain new insight into Earth's more complicated environment. ...