Why, King Triton, how nice to see you!

The entire universe in blog form
March 13 2009 2:31 PM

Why, King Triton, how nice to see you!

It figures: I spend hours and hours putting together my Ten Things post about Pluto, and the New Horizons team releases a way cool image too late for me to include it!

But it is way cool. Check this out:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


Neptune and Triton as seen by New Horizons

This image shows Neptune and its large moon Triton. That's a remarkable shot, given that the planet and moon were nearly four billion kilometers away when it was taken!

As I mentioned in the Pluto post, Neptune and Pluto never get really close together, so New Horizons isn't exactly dropping by on its way to Pluto. This image was taken as a test of the equipment, and has some scientific value as Emily points out. And as the press release says:

Triton is only slightly larger than Pluto (1,700 miles [2,700 kilometers] in diameter compared to Pluto’s 1,500 miles [2,400 kilometers]). Both objects have atmospheres primarily composed of nitrogen gas with a surface pressure only 1/70,000th of Earth’s, and comparably cold surface temperatures (-390° F on Triton and -370° F on Pluto). Triton is widely believed to have once been a member of the Kuiper Belt (as Pluto still is) that was captured into orbit around Neptune, probably during a collision early in the solar system’s history.

New Horizons will start taking images of Pluto while it's still a long way off from the tiny world, so this observations shows the probe is up to the task.

In case you're curious, the image itself is interesting. Neptune was overexposed, causing that column of light called blooming. This kind of detector "sees" light by converting incoming photons into electrons, and then counting the electrons. But if an object is too bright, too many electrons are created which overflow the pixels, something like rain overflowing a bucket. Due to the structure of the detector, the electrons flow more easily in one direction than another, and you get blooming. Worse, this effect can suppress the number of electrons seen per pixel along that column, which is why there is a dark streak above Neptune as well.

This kind of thing is just something you have to deal with when using electronic detectors of this type. It takes a while to get used to it, and can lead to all sorts of problems (there could be a faint interesting source near your target that gets obliterated by this effect). It also leads to pseudoscience, as I pointed out in my Planet X debunking a while back.

In science you have to understand your camera just as well as your astronomical target. Clearly, the astronomers involved with New Horizons did for their detector, since you'll note that Triton is off to the side, away from the blooming issue.

And for those wondering about the post title... it's from The Little Mermaid. Ursula said it, and I used to imitate her to crack up The Little Astronomer when she was very little. It still makes me laugh.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.