New NASA Mission Eyes Neptune’s Moon Triton, Aims To Find Out If It’s Habitable

The last time the world has set eyes on Triton was in 1989, when the distant moon was visited by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Computer generated montage of the planet Neptune looming behind its largest moon, Triton.
NASA

The last time the world has set eyes on Triton was in 1989, when the distant moon was visited by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

An exciting new mission to explore Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, could be in the cards in the near future. According to Futurism, NASA scientists have set their eyes on the distant frozen world and are considering sending a spacecraft to explore this mysterious moon within the next couple of decades.

The big attraction surrounding Triton is that it may harbor an ocean, as suggested by the data sent back by the Voyager 2 spacecraft after its brief flyby of the remote moon in 1989. At the time, the venerable NASA mission recorded evidence of possible water plumes being spewed out from Triton’s interior. This has prompted scientists to believe that the moon is still geologically active and that it may harbor the ingredients for life.

What We Know Of Triton So Far

The largest moon of Neptune is very appealing in terms of space exploration. Nestled on the fringes of the solar system, Triton was first discovered in 1846 and is believed to have originated in the Kuiper Belt, the vast realm of icy bodies floating beyond the orbit of Neptune.

This enigmatic moon is extremely far-flung. Nestled nearly 2.700 billion miles from our planet, Triton is an icy world about 22 percent smaller than Earth’s moon. The distant moon of Neptune belongs to an elite class of celestial bodies in our solar system and is one of only three objects known to have a nitrogen-dominated atmosphere, alongside Earth and Saturn’s giant moon, Titan.

Global color mosaic of Triton, captured in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
Global color mosaic of Triton, captured in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. NASA/JPL/USGS

Triton is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit, meaning that it circles Neptune in the opposite direction to the gas giant’s rotation. This remote frozen world also ranks supreme as the coldest place in the entire solar system, boasting a surface temperature of about minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It is so cold that most of Triton’s nitrogen is condensed as frost, making it the only satellite in the solar system known to have a surface made mainly of nitrogen ice,” explains NASA.

Mission To Triton

Given the known data, researchers have been advocating for a return to Triton for a very long time. The moon has remained unvisited over the past 30 years, ever since the Voyager 2 spacecraft left Neptune’s system to venture farther out toward the edge of the solar system. As such, a team of scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has drawn up plans for a mission to Triton that aims to be both trailblazing and cost-effective.

Their idea is to send a spacecraft, one aptly named Trident, to study the far-off water-world in a bid of finding out whether it is hospitable to life. The plan is to equip Trident with state-of-the-art imaging technology and send it to photograph the perplexing moon of Neptune in order to confirm the potential water plumes spotted by Voyager three decades ago.

Voyager 2 image showing the southern hemisphere of Triton.
Voyager 2 image showing the southern hemisphere of Triton. NASA/JPL / Wikimedia Commons/Resized

Presenting their proposal at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference – held earlier this week in Houston, Texas – the team pointed out that such a mission would have to kick off as soon as possible.

“In order to view the plumes that Voyager saw in 1989, we have to encounter Triton before 2040,” said Dr. Karl Mitchell, project scientist for the proposed Trident mission.

If this deadline is exceeded, the mission will miss its chance to accurately image Triton, as the moon will plunge into darkness for more than 80 years due to the positions of the planets and their moons in their orbit around the sun, notes The New York Times.

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The good news is that such a mission would not necessarily be a costly one. In fact, the team believes that an exploratory trip to Triton could be pulled off for roughly the same cost as a “small mission to the moon.”

“The time is now to do it at a low cost,” said Louise Prockter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston and the principal investigator of the Trident mission.

“And we will investigate whether it is a habitable world, which is of huge importance.”

The project will be officially presented to NASA later this month as one of the proposals for the agency’s Discovery program, which finances missions that require a budget of less than $500 million. One such example — and the most recent one — was the InSight mission to Mars, which reached the red planet in November of 2018.

“Triton shows tantalizing hints at being active and having an ocean,” said Dr. Amanda Hendrix of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

“It is a three-for-one target, because you can visit the Neptune system, visit this interesting ocean world, and also visit a Kuiper belt object without having to go all the way out there.”