Mapping Neptune’s Mysterious Moon

In the cold, icy darkness of the outer realm of our Solar System, far from the comforting warmth and glimmering golden light of our Sun, a frigid and beautiful, blue and gigantic, gaseous planet dwells. The ice giant Neptune is the furthest of the eight major planets from our Star, and it is a magnificent and majestic world of mystery–circled by one of the most bewitching and bewildering moons in our Sun’s family. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft provided us with the very first close-up peek at Neptune and its large, icy moon Triton back in the summer of 1989. In August 2014, planetary scientist Dr. Paul Schenk, of the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute in Houston, Texas, released a new map that he has made recreating that historic Voyager close encounter, which occurred a quarter of a century ago, on August 25, 1989.

Like a vintage movie from another era, Voyager’s historic footage of Triton has now been “restored” and used to create the best global color map yet of this enchantingly mysterious frigid moon. Dr. Schenk’s map has also been used to make a movie recreating that historic Voyager encounter with Triton.

Back in 1989, most of the northern hemisphere of that distant, icy moon was cloaked in darkness and was, therefore, unseen by the traveling Voyager. Because of the great swiftness of the Voyager encounter, and the sluggish rotation of Triton, only one hemisphere was clearly observed at a close distance. The rest of that distant moon’s icy surface was either enveloped in darkness or observed merely as blurry tracings.

Alas, Triton!

Galileo Galilei discovered the giant planet Neptune using his primitive “spyglass”–one of the first telescopes–on December 28, 1612. He spotted it again on January 27, 1613. Unfortunately, on both occasions, Galileo mistook the enormous, distant world for a fixed star, appearing close to the planet Jupiter in the darkness of a long ago winter night sky. As a result of this early error, Galileo is usually not given credit for the discovery of Neptune.

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