It’s not a Triton, or even a Neptune orbiter, but Trident is still an exciting mission, a Triton flyby that would take a close look at the active resurfacing going on on this remarkable moon. Trident has recently been selected by NASA’s Discovery Program as one of four science investigations that will lead to one to two missions being chosen at the end of the study for development and launch in the 2020s.
These are nine-month studies, and they include, speaking of young and constantly changing surfaces, the Io Volcanic Observer (IVO). The other two missions are the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, and DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus).
Each of these studies will receive $3 million to bring its concepts to fruition, concluding with a Concept Study Report, at which point we’ll get word on the one or two that have made it to further development and flight. The NASA Discovery program has been in place since 1992, dedicated to supporting smaller missions with lower cost and shorter development times than the larger flagship missions. That these missions can have serious clout is obvious from some of the past selections: Kepler, Dawn, Deep Impact, MESSENGER, Stardust and NEAR.
Active missions at the moment include Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and InSight, but we leave the inner system with Lucy, a Discovery mission visiting a main belt asteroid as well as six Jupiter trojans, and Psyche, which will explore the unusual metal asteroid 16 Psyche. Discovery missions set a $500 million cost-cap excluding launch vehicle operations, data analysis or partner contributions. The next step up in size is New Frontiers, now with a $1 billion cost-cap — here we can mention New Horizons, OSIRIS-REx and Juno as well as Dragonfly.
I assume that New Horizons’ success at Pluto/Charon helped Trident along, showing how much good science can be collected from a flyby. Triton makes for a target of high interest because of its atmosphere and erupting plumes, along with the potential for an interior ocean. The goal of Trident is to characterize the processes at work while mapping a large swath of Triton and learning whether in fact the putative ocean beneath the surface exists. A mid-2020s launch takes advantage of a rare and efficient gravity assist alignment to make the mission feasible. Louise Prockter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, is principal investigator.
Image: Dr. Louise Prockter, program director for the Universities Space Research Association, as well as director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, is now principal investigator for Trident. Credit: USRA.
We can thank Voyager 2 for providing our only close-up images of Triton, which was revealed to be a place where explosive venting blows dark material from beneath the ice into the air, material which falls back onto the surface to create new features. The terrain is varied and notable for the striking ‘cantaloupe’ pattern covering large areas. With its distinctive retrograde rotation, orbiting opposite to Neptune’s rotation, and high inclination orbit, Triton may well be an object captured from the Kuiper Belt, in an orbit where tidal forces likely lead to interior heating that could maintain an ocean. What we learn here could inform our understanding not just of KBOs, but also giant moons like Titan and Europa, and smaller ocean worlds like Enceladus.
This would be a flyby with abundant opportunities for data collection, as this precis from the 2019 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference makes clear:
An active-redundant operational sequence ensures unique observations during an eclipse of Triton – and another of Neptune itself – and includes redundant data collection throughout the flyby… High-resolution imaging and broad-spectrum IR imaging spectroscopy, together with high-capacity onboard storage, allow near-full-body mapping over the course of one Triton orbit… Trident passes through Triton’s thin atmosphere, within 500 km of the surface, sampling its ionosphere with a plasma spectrometer and performing magnetic induction measurements to verify the existence of an extant ocean. Trident’s passage through a total eclipse allows observations through two atmospheric radio occultations for mapping electron and neutral atmospheric density, Neptune-shine illuminated eclipse imaging for change detection since the 1989 Voyager 2 flyby, and high-phase angle atmospheric imaging for mapping haze layers and plumes.
Image: Global color mosaic of Triton, taken in 1989 by Voyager 2 during its flyby of the Neptune system. Color was synthesized by combining high-resolution images taken through orange, violet, and ultraviolet filters; these images were displayed as red, green, and blue images and combined to create this color version. With a radius of 1,350 kilometers (839 mi), about 22% smaller than Earth’s moon, Triton is by far the largest satellite of Neptune. It is one of only three objects in the Solar System known to have a nitrogen-dominated atmosphere (the others are Earth and Saturn’s giant moon, Titan). Triton has the coldest surface known anywhere in the Solar System (38 K, about -391 degrees Fahrenheit); it is so cold that most of Triton’s nitrogen is condensed as frost, making it the only satellite in the Solar System known to have a surface made mainly of nitrogen ice. The pinkish deposits constitute a vast south polar cap believed to contain methane ice, which would have reacted under sunlight to form pink or red compounds. The dark streaks overlying these pink ices are believed to be an icy and perhaps carbonaceous dust deposited from huge geyser-like plumes, some of which were found to be active during the Voyager 2 flyby. The bluish-green band visible in this image extends all the way around Triton near the equator; it may consist of relatively fresh nitrogen frost deposits. The greenish areas includes what is called the cantaloupe terrain, whose origin is unknown, and a set of “cryovolcanic” landscapes apparently produced by icy-cold liquids (now frozen) erupted from Triton’s interior.
If it flies, Trident would launch in 2026 and reach Triton in 2038, using gravity assists at Venus, the Earth and, finally, Jupiter for a final course deflection toward Neptune. The current thinking is to bring the spacecraft, which will weigh about twice New Horizons’ 478 kg, within 500 kilometers of Triton, a close pass indeed compared to New Horizons’ 12,500 kilometer pass by Pluto. This is indeed close enough for the spacecraft to sample Triton’s ionosphere and conduct the needed magnetic induction measurements to confirm or refute the existence of its ocean. As this mission firms up, we’ll be keeping a close eye on its prospects in the outer system. Remember, too, the 2017 workshop in Houston examining a possible Pluto orbiter, still a long way from being anything more than a concept, but interesting enough to make the pulse race.
My friend Ashley Baldwin, who sent along some good references re Trident, also noted that Trident’s trajectory is such that the gravity assist around Jupiter could, at 1.24 Jupiter radii, provide a close flyby of Io. Interesting in terms of the competing Io Volcanic Observer entry.