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Official NASA Communication 98-110

Official NASA Communication 98-110

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Published by: NASAdocuments on Oct 06, 2007
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Don SavageHeadquarters, Washington, DC June 24, 1998(Phone: 202/358-1547)Donna WeaverSpace Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD(Phone: 410/338-4493)Deborah HalberMassachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA(Phone: 617/258-9726)RELEASE: 98-110HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE HELPS FIND EVIDENCETHAT NEPTUNE'S LARGEST MOON IS WARMING UPObservations obtained by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope andground-based instruments reveal that Neptune's largest moon, Triton,seems to have heated up significantly since the Voyager spacecraftvisited it in 1989."Since 1989, at least, Triton has been undergoing a period of global warming -- percentage-wise, it's a very large increase," saidJames 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 thinatmosphere denser. Dr. Elliot and his colleagues from MIT, LowellObservatory, and Williams College published their findings in the June25 issue of the journal Nature.Even with the warming, no one is likely to plan a summer vacationon Triton, which is a bit smaller than Earth's moon. The five percentincrease means that Triton's temperature has risen from about 37 degreeson the absolute (Kelvin) temperature scale (-392 degrees Fahrenheit) toabout 39 degrees Kelvin (-389 degrees Fahrenheit). If Earth experienceda similar change in global temperature over a comparable period, itcould lead to significant climatic changes.Triton, however, is a very different and simpler world thanEarth, with a much thinner atmosphere, no oceans, and a surface of frozen nitrogen. But the two share some contributing factors to globalwarming, such as changes to the Sun's heat output, how much sunlight isabsorbed and reflected by their surfaces, and the amount of methane andcarbon monoxide (greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere.
"With Triton, we can more easily study environmental changesbecause of its simple, thin atmosphere," Elliot explained. By studyingthese changes on Triton, the scientists hope to gain new insight intoEarth's more complicated environment.Elliot and his colleagues explain that Triton's warming trend maybe driven by seasonal changes in its polar ice caps. Triton isapproaching an extreme southern summer, a season that occurs every fewhundred years. During this special time, the moon's southern hemispherereceives more direct sunlight, which heats the polar ice caps. "For anorthern summer on Earth, it would be like the Sun being directlyoverhead at noon north of Lake Superior," Elliot said.The scientists are basing a rise in Triton's surface temperatureon the Hubble telescope's detection of an increase in the moon'satmospheric pressure, which has at least doubled in bulk since the timeof the Voyager encounter. Any nitrogen ice on Triton that warms up alittle results in a considerable leap in atmospheric pressure as thevaporized nitrogen gas joins the atmosphere. Because of the unusuallystrong link between Triton's surface ice temperature and its atmosphericpressure, Elliot says scientists can infer a temperature rise of threedegrees Fahrenheit over nine years.The scientists used one of Hubble's three Fine Guidance Sensors(used to keep the telescope pointed at a celestial target by monitoringthe brightness of guide stars) in November 1997 to measure Triton'satmospheric pressure. When Triton passed in front of a star known as"Tr180" in the constellation Sagittarius, the guidance sensor measuredthe star's gradual decrease in brightness as Triton passed in front of it. The starlight became fainter as it traveled through Triton'sthicker atmosphere.Elliot and his colleagues list two other possible explanationsfor Triton's warmer weather. Because the frost pattern on Triton'ssurface may have changed over the years, it may be absorbing a littlemore of the Sun's warmth. Alternatively, changes in reflectivity of Triton's ice may have caused it to absorb more heat.The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by theAssociation of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA), forNASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt,MD. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of internationalcooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

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