Shivank Menon

School: Singapore International School

Topic: Triton

"Triton, the largest natural satellite of Neptune, is a mixed bag of astronomical curiosities. It is 2,710 kilometres in diameter, but despite its immense size, it remains largely unexplored. In 1989, it was visited by Voyager 2 which captured images of 40% of its surface. Triton is like an unopened treasure chest whose glittering contents we have caught only a glimpse of. It is potentially of tremendous interest to astronomers, geologists, physicists, and even biologists.

Artist's view of Voyager 2 at Triton
One of the most striking characteristics of Triton is its cryovolcanism, despite the exceedingly cold temperatures. Its surface is young and hence geologically active. The crypto volcanoes spew out liquid ammonia and water. These volcanoes, along with tectonic processes are thought to have created the intricate valleys and ridges that characterize Triton. A robotic aircraft can gather evidence in order to determine whether this is true. Furthermore, it can perform chemical tests to determine the composition of the surface. This can too give insight into the formation of Triton’s unique geographical features. Moreover, since the currently unseen side of Triton is exposed to a different external environment, a robotic spacecraft will provide further information about the effects of internal and external factors on Triton’s landscape.

Another bewildering feature of Triton is its ionosphere. An ionosphere is an atmospheric region in which the air particles have been ionized. What makes its ionosphere intriguing is the fact that ionospheres are thought to form due to solar radiation, while Triton is 30 astronomical units away from the Sun. Theories suggest that the ionosphere may be a result of the gravitational pull of Neptune. It is possible that there will be variation in the numbers of ionized particles on the two sides of Triton since they are at different distances from Neptune. A robotic spacecraft could enhance our understanding of this ionosphere and of ionization broadly.

Triton may also help answer the age-old question:” Are we alone?” The surface hosts Tholins, organic macromolecules considered essential ingredients for life. There is also water ice, another substance that life is thought to depend on. It is not inconceivable that microbial life, able to withstand severe conditions, calls Triton home. Moreover, it is also possible that there is an ocean of liquid water under the surface, formed by melting due to friction caused by changes in the gravitational force exerted by Neptune, over the course of Triton’s orbit. Such an ocean could perhaps contain life forms. Nevertheless, the orbit of Triton is somewhat circular, so the distance between Neptune and Triton may not vary considerably. Hence, there might not be sufficient friction for an ocean to form.

In conclusion, it is imperative that a robotic spacecraft is sent to Triton because at present we have a rather surface-level comprehension of what I regard as one of the most remarkable celestial bodies we have come across. Exploring Triton is bound to open up new paradigms in science, simply because it is a world spectacularly different from any we have witnessed before."

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