AND on Oct. 5, SOFIA is going on a special flight to chase the shadow of Neptune’s moon Triton as it crosses Earth’s surface!
In case you’re wondering, SOFIA stands for: Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.
Triton is 1,680 miles (2,700 km) across, making it the largest of the 13 moons orbiting Neptune. Unlike most large moons in our solar system, Triton orbits in the opposite direction of Neptune, called a retrograde orbit. This backward orbit leads scientists to believe that Triton formed in an area past Neptune, called the Kuiper Belt, and was pulled into its orbit around Neptune by gravity.
The Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune and Triton in 1989 and found that Triton’s atmosphere is made up of mostly nitrogen…but it has not been studied in nearly 16 years!
Occultations are Eclipse-Like Events
An occultation occurs when an object, like a planet or a moon, passes in front of a star and completely blocks the light from that star. As the object blocks the star’s light, it casts a faint shadow on Earth’s surface.
But unlike an eclipse, these shadows are not usually visible to the naked eye because the star and object are much smaller and not nearly as bright as our sun. Telescopes with special instruments can actually see these shadows and study the star’s light as it passes near and around the object – if they can be in the right place on Earth to catch the shadow.
Scientists have been making advanced observations of Triton and a background star. They’ve calculated exactly where Triton’s faint shadow will fall on Earth! Our SOFIA team has designed a flight path that will put SOFIA (the telescope and aircraft) exactly in the center of the shadow at the precise moment that Triton and the star will align.
This is no easy feat because the shadow is moving at more than 53,000 mph while SOFIA flies at Mach 0.85 (652 mph), so we only have about two minutes to catch the shadow!! But our SOFIA team has previously harnessed the aircraft’s mobility to study Pluto from inside the center of its occultation shadow, and is ready to do it again to study Triton!
What We Learn From Inside the Shadow
From inside the shadow, our team on SOFIA will study the star’s light as it passes around and through Triton’s atmosphere. This allows us to learn more about Triton’s atmosphere, including its temperature, pressure, density and composition!
Ground-based telescopes across the United States and Europe – from Scotland to the Canary Islands – will also be studying Triton’s occultation. Even though most of these telescopes will not be in the center of the shadow, the simultaneous observations, from different locations on Earth, will give us information about how Triton’s atmosphere varies across its latitudes.
This data from across the Earth and from onboard SOFIA will help researchers understand how Triton’s atmosphere is distorted at different locations by its high winds and its strong tides!
What is the Stratospheric
Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, up to?
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, as our flying telescope is called, is a Boeing 747SP aircraft
that carries a 2.5-meter telescope to altitudes as high as 45,000 feet.
Researchers use SOFIA to study the solar system and beyond using infrared
light. This type of light does not reach the ground, but does reach the
altitudes where SOFIA flies.
Recently, we used SOFIA to study water on Venus, hoping to
learn more about how
that planet lost its oceans. Our researchers used a powerful instrument on
SOFIA, called a spectrograph,
to detect water in its normal form and “heavy water,” which has an extra
neutron. The heavy water takes longer to evaporate and builds up over time. By
measuring how much heavy water is on Venus’ surface now, our team will be able
to estimate how much water Venus had when the planet formed.
We are also using SOFIA to create a detailed map of the Whirlpool
Galaxy by making multiple observations of the galaxy. This map will help us
understand how stars form from clouds in that galaxy. In particular, it will
help us to know if the spiral arms in the galaxy trigger clouds to collapse
into stars, or if the arms just show up where stars have already formed.
We can also use SOFIA to study methane on Mars. The Curiosity rover
has detected methane
on the surface of Mars. But the total amount of methane on Mars is unknown and
evidence so far indicates that its levels change significantly over time and
location. We are using SOFIA to search for evidence of this gas by mapping the Red
Planet with an instrument specially tuned to sniff out methane.
Next our team will use SOFIA to study Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, searching for evidence of possible water plumes detected by the Hubble Space Telescope. The plumes, illustrated in the artist’s concept above, were previously seen in images as extensions from the edge of the moon. Using SOFIA, we will search for water and determine if the plumes are eruptions of water from the surface. If the plumes are coming from the surface, they may be erupting through cracks in the ice that covers Europa’s oceans. Members of our SOFIA team recently discussed studying Europa on the NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast.
This is the view of Jupiter and its moons taken with SOFIA’s
light guide camera that is used to position the telescope.