Triton: A subsurface ocean?

Sep 06, 2012 by Amanda Doyle
Computer-generated montage of Triton and Neptune, using images from the Voyager 2 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

Neptune's largest moon Triton is most likely a captured Kuiper Belt Object. The capture of icy Triton and the subsequent taming of its orbit likely led to the formation of a subsurface ocean through tidal heating. New research suggests that this ocean could still exist today.

Triton was discovered in 1846 by the British astronomer William Lassell, but much about Neptune's largest moon still remains a mystery. A Voyager 2 flyby in 1989 offered a quick peak at the satellite, and revealed a comprised mainly of . The moon's surface also had nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. As Triton's density is quite high, it is suspected that it has a large core of silicate rock. It is possible that a liquid ocean could have formed between the rocky core and icy surface shell, and scientists have investigated if this ocean could have survived until now.

Captured from the Kuiper Belt

Triton has a unique property among large solar system moons; it has a . Planets form from a circumstellar disc of dust and gas that surrounds a young star. This disc circles the star in one direction, and thus the planets and their moons must also in this same direction. These orbits are known as prograde, and a rogue object that orbits backwards is said to be in a retrograde orbit. The retrograde orbit of Triton means that it most likely did not form around Neptune.

The was a place of dynamic violence, with many bodies changing orbits and crashing into each other. Triton likely originated in the Kuiper Belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune, and was sent hurtling inwards until it was captured by Neptune's gravity. Directly after capture, the moon would have been in a highly elliptical, eccentric orbit. This type of orbit would have raised large tides on the moon, and the friction of these tides would have caused energy to be lost. The is converted into heat within the moon, and this heat can melt some of the icy interior and form an ocean beneath the ice shell. The energy loss from tides is also responsible for gradually changing Triton's orbit from an ellipse to a circle.

Heating the interior

Friction from tides is not the only source of heat within a terrestrial body; there is also radiogenic heating. This is heat that is caused by the decay of radioactive isotopes within a moon or planet, and this process can create heat for billions of years.

Radiogenic heating contributes several times more heat to Triton's interior than ; however this heat alone is not sufficient to keep the subsurface ocean in a liquid state over 4.5 billion years. However, tidal dissipation causes heat to be concentrated at the bottom of the ice shell, which impedes the growth rate of the ice and effectively acts as a tidal-heated blanket. This tidal dissipation is stronger for larger values of eccentricity, meaning it would have played a major role in heating Triton in the past.

Triton: A subsurface ocean?
One model of Triton’s interior. 70 to 80 percent rock (1), with the remainder being water ice (2) and an outer layer of methane and nitrogen ice (3). This is also believed to be the general interior configuration for the ice dwarf Pluto. Credit: Wikipedia

"While the concentration of tidal dissipation near the bottom of ice shells was known for some time, we believe our work is the first to demonstrate that it indeed controls the rate of freezing and sustainability of subsurface oceans," says Saswata Hier-Majumder at the University of Maryland. "Radiogenic heating, in comparison, heats up the shell uniformly, and thus doesn't have as disproportionate an influence as tidal dissipation does."

Sustaining the ocean

The exact point in time when Triton was captured by , along with the length of the time it took the orbit to become circularized are unknown. Triton's orbit is currently almost exactly circular. Investigating how the shape of the orbit evolved through time is important to determine the level of tidal heating that occurred, and thus if the subsurface ocean could still exist today.

As Triton cools, the ice sheet will grow to engulf the underlying ocean. The new research calculates how the thickness of the ice shell can influence the tidal dissipation and thus the crystallization of the subsurface ocean. If the is thin, then the tidal forces will have a more pronounced effect and increase the heating. If the shell is thick, then the moon becomes more rigid and less tidal heating will occur.

"I think it is extremely likely that a subsurface ammonia-rich ocean exists in Triton," says Hier-Majumder. "[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."

For instance, the exact size of Triton's rocky core is unknown. If the core turns out to be larger than the value used in the calculations, then there will be more radiogenic heating, with extra heating increasing the size of any existing ocean. The depth of the ocean also may not be constant across the moon, as tidal dissipation concentrates energy near the poles, meaning that an ocean would likely be deeper there. In addition, recent calculations estimate that icy bodies in the outer Solar System could be comprised of up to 15 percent ammonia. Ammonia-rich volatile material works to lower the temperature at which a solid turns to a liquid, and the presence of such volatiles may also help the persistence of a liquid layer beneath the ice.

Computer model of the Kuiper Belt, where Triton is thought to have originated. Credit: Minor Planet Center/Murray and Dermott


Life in the ocean

Subsurface oceans on icy bodies could provide potential habitats for primitive extraterrestrial life. Jupiter's moon Europa is currently the leading candidate for such a habitat, although there is still much debate about this. The probability of life existing within the depths of Triton's ocean is much smaller than for Europa, but it still can't be completely ruled out.

The ammonia that is likely present in Triton's might act to lower the freezing point of water, thus making it more suitable for life. The temperature of the ocean is still probably around 176 K (minus 97 C, or minus 143 F), which would slow down biochemical reactions significantly, and impede evolution. However terrestrial enzymes have been found to speed up biochemical reactions down to temperatures of 170 K.

Another more remote possibility is that Triton could host silicon-based life, assuming that silicon can actually be used as a foundation for life instead of carbon. Silanes, which are structural analogues of hydrocarbons, could be used as a building block for life under the right conditions. The frigid temperatures and the limited abundance of carbon on Triton could be suitable for silicon-based life, but there isn't enough known about the behavior of silanes in such unusual conditions to firmly state that such life could exist.

The research by Jodi Gaeman, Saswata Hier-Majumder, and James Roberts was published in the August issue of the journal Icarus.

Explore further: NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Related Stories

Pluto's hidden ocean

Nov 24, 2011

When NASA's New Horizons cruises by Pluto in 2015, the images it captures could help astronomers determine if an ocean is hiding under the frigid surface, opening the door to new possibilities for liquid water ...

Triton's summer sky of methane and carbon monoxide

Apr 07, 2010

According to the first ever infrared analysis of the atmosphere of Neptune's moon Triton, summer is in full swing in its southern hemisphere. The European observing team used ESO's Very Large Telescope and ...

'Hot Jupiter' planets unlikely to have moons

Aug 23, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Planets of the major type so far found outside our solar system are unlikely to have moons, according to new research reported in the August 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Recommended for you

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

10 hours ago

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

barakn
5 / 5 (2) Sep 06, 2012
The numbering in the second image is backwards from the numbering in its description.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (2) Sep 06, 2012
Nice. Something like ~ 10 moons and asteroids (Ceres) are projected to have oceans. It is interesting that Triton is both larger and slightly denser than another misplaced KBO, Pluto.

"Europa is currently the leading candidate for such a habitat".

I believe it has been noted that Enceladus are known to have an ocean (and now Europa too by way of the ice floats), and it has little to no pesky ammonia in the jet affluent IIRC but organics. [ http://www.esa.in...x_3.html ] (Possibly, the 17 au NH3 could be a confound with 18 au H2O.)

"silicon-based life".

The solid SiO2 is deemed to be an unsurmountable problem by many or most.
Jonseer
1 / 5 (2) Sep 06, 2012
"silicon-based life".

The solid SiO2 is deemed to be an unsurmountable problem by many or most.


Why do you say that, silicon dioxide is taken up and incorporated by a variety of life on this planet and used to create structures. I imagine the researchers who said this took this into account and imagined that in the unique environment of Triton SiO2 could do more than it does here where it's a structural element in a lot of life.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Sep 07, 2012
Jonseer, that is a good point. It has been the traditional problem AFAIK. The potential metabolite SiO2 is a solid under liquid water conditions and would accumulate rapidly.

There are other sources for silicone "organics" such as the mentioned silanes, but our biosphere stopped relying on haphazard and external abiotic organic production long since. At the time of the RNA/protein world it seems the preferred carbon source was CO2. ["The Emergence and Early Evolution of Biological Carbon-Fixation", Braakman et al, PLOS Comp. Biol. 2012.]

Maybe silicon based protocells can evolve, you don't need much according to Shoztak's work on organic protocells, likely silane based membranes and some polymer analog to RNA.* Maybe they can couple to a silane based metabolism. But the long term viability of such life doesn't seem large.

* Already there we have a problem. The Si-Si bound is readily hydrolyzed, so we have shadows of "arsenic life" all over again.

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.