Astronomers have observed the uncommon union between carbon monoxide and nitrogen ices on the surface of Neptune's largest moon, Triton.
An international team used the Gemini South Telescope in Chile to observe the distant celestial object. A paper discussing the findings have been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.
Astronomers Explore Surface Of Triton
For the study, the team first pinpointed a very specific wavelength of infrared light that would be absorbed if the combined molecules of carbon monoxide and nitrogen molecules are present and vibrating in unison. Then, at the Gemini Observatory, the researchers recorded the same wavelength of infrared from Triton.
"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," explained lead author of the international study Stephen C. Tegler of the Northern Arizona University's Astrophysical Materials Laboratory.
On Earth, carbon monoxide and nitrogen molecules exist as gases. However, they turn to ice on Triton, which, according to NASA, is one of the coolest objects in the solar system. The surface temperature in Triton is about -391 degrees Fahrenheit.
The researchers explained that carbon monoxide and nitrogen molecules can form independent ices or condense and create an icy mix, which was detected by the researchers using the Gemini Observatory.
The researchers also suggested that the icy mix might also have been involved in the iconic geysers that the Voyager 2 witnessed back when it made its flyby of Triton in 1989.
"This work demonstrates the power of combining laboratory studies with telescope observations to understand complex planetary processes in alien environments so different from what we encounter every day here on Earth," added Henry Roe, Deputy Director of Gemini and a member of the research team.
What Might Be Found In Triton
The Gemini findings are the first direct spectroscopic evidence of carbon monoxide and nitrogen ice mixing and absorbing this specific wavelength of infrared light. The researchers, however, suggested that the mix also occurs in Pluto where the two forms of ice coexist based on the data from New Horizons.
The team also hopes that the study will shed light on the composition of ices in other objects beyond Neptune.