On Oct. 10, 1846, Triton, the largest of Neptune’s moons, was discovered, a mere 17 days after its planet was discovered. However, humanity didn’t get a close look at the moon until 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 performed a flyby. Since then, the moon hasn’t been revisited.
“Triton is a big moon,” said Geoffrey Landis, of the NASA Glenn Research Center, in a NASA 360 video. “In fact, it’s bigger than Pluto. So if Neptune weren’t there, we would’ve considered it a planet.”
Landis and Steven Oleson, also of the NASA Glenn Research Center, hope to explore Triton, and the recently published NASA 360 video focuses on their concept for a hopper vehicle that will allow them to do just that.
In essence, the hopper vehicle would utilize a radioisotope heat source to warm up nitrogen stored in a tank situated on the spacecraft. This would then be expelled, allowing the spacecraft to achieve liftoff and move about the moon’s surface.
But why go to Triton?
Like Pluto, the moon has an atmosphere, comprised mainly by nitrogen and small amounts of methane. The surface temperature is negative 235 C, and toward the south pole, scientists have glimpsed wind streaks, which they believe originate from liquid nitrogen geysers on the moon’s surface.
“It’s the largest and the closest of the Kuiper Belt objects,” said Landis.
According to NASA, Triton may have been ensnared by Neptune’s gravity millions of years ago.
The Kuiper Belt is a disk-shaped region past Neptune’s reaches. It extends between 30 and 55 astronomical units. “Objects in the Kuiper Belt are presumed to be remnants from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago,” according to NASA.
Landis said the concept-hopping vehicle could also be applied to surface exploration on Pluto.
The space government agency noted that the NASA 350 video is representative of a study within the agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Being part of this program doesn’t necessarily mean the concept will evolve into full-fledged missions.
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