Triton's Geyser-Like Plumes: Discovery and Basic Characterization

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Science  19 Oct 1990:
Vol. 250, Issue 4979, pp. 410-415
DOI: 10.1126/science.250.4979.410


At least four active geyser-like eruptions were discovered in Voyager 2 images of Triton, Neptune's large satellite. The two best documented eruptions occur as columns of dark material rising to an altitude of about 8 kilometers where dark clouds of material are left suspended to drift downwind over 100 kilometers. The radii of the rising columns appear to be in the range of several tens of meters to a kilometer. One model for the mechanism to drive the plumes involves heating of nitrogen ice in a subsurface greenhouse environment; nitrogen gas pressurized by the solar heating explosively vents to the surface carrying clouds of ice and dark partides into the atmosphere. A temperature increase of less than 4 kelvins above the ambient surface value of 38 ± 3 kelvins is more than adequate to drive the plumes to an 8-kilometer altitude. The mass flux in the trailing clouds is estimated to consist of up to 10 kilograms of fine dark particles per second or twice as much nitrogen ice and perhaps several hundred or more kilograms of nitrogen gas per second. Each eruption may last a year or more, during which on the order of a tenth of a cubic kilometer of ice is sublimed.

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