Neptune's moon Triton fosters rare icy union | 4/7/2010 | Staff
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Astronomers using the Gemini Observatory explore Neptune's largest moon Triton and observe, for the first time beyond the lab, an extraordinary union between carbon monoxide and nitrogen ices. The discovery offers insights into how this volatile mixture can transport material across the moon's surface via geysers, trigger seasonal atmospheric changes, and provide a context for conditions on other distant, icy worlds.

Extreme conditions can produce extreme results. In this case, it's the uncommon pairing of two common molecules—carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen (N2)—frozen as solid ices on Neptune's frigid moon Triton.

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In the laboratory, an international team of scientists have pinpointed a very specific wavelength of infrared light absorbed when carbon monoxide and nitrogen molecules join together and vibrate in unison. Individually, carbon monoxide and nitrogen ices each absorb their own distinct wavelengths of infrared light, but the tandem vibration of an ice mixture absorbs at an additional, distinct wavelength identified in this study.

Using the 8-meter Gemini South Telescope in Chile, the team have recorded this same unique infrared signature on Triton. Key to the discovery was the high-resolution spectrograph called IGRINS (Immersion Grating Infrared Spectrometer) which was built as a collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). Both the Gemini Observatory and IGRINS receive funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and KASI.

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"While the icy spectral fingerprint we uncovered was entirely reasonable, especially as this combination of ices can be created in the lab, pinpointing this specific wavelength of infrared light on another world is unprecedented," said Stephen C. Tegler of Northern Arizona University's Astrophysical Materials Laboratory who led the international study. The research results have been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.

In the Earth's atmosphere carbon monoxide and nitrogen molecules exist as gases, not ices. In fact, molecular...
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