Institute for Astronomy Home
IFA Home Page   |    Search   |    Other Editions    No. 9 - Fall 2003 
  All Articles  


Some Recent Solar System Discoveries Made with the IRTF

Jupiter's aurora: The initial discovery of the electrodynamic interaction between Jupiter's magnetic field and its moon Io was made by the IRTF. This interaction produces auroral emission at the north and south poles on Jupiter that is similar to Earth's auroras, which are caused by Earth's magnetic field.

Discovery of haze on Pluto: The atmosphere of Pluto is very tenuous (about 10,000 times less dense than Earth's). Yet evidence for haze on Pluto was found with IRTF observations. The origin of the haze particles is likely to be due to photochemical processing of the methane atmosphere, similar to the production of smog on the Earth.

Maps of ozone and water on Mars: Ozone is an important component in the upper atmosphere of Mars, like that of the Earth. The ozone distribution and chemistry is being studied on a global scale as the seasons change on Mars (on a 22-month cycle).

Composition of comets: Some hydrocarbon molecules such as ethane, acetylene, and ethylene were first discovered in comets at the IRTF. Some of these hydrocarbons were incorporated into Earth when it formed.

Measuring the winds on Titan: The winds in the atmosphere of Titan, a satellite of Saturn, were measured for the first time. The Cassini spacecraft now on its way to Saturn will deposit a probe into the atmosphere of Titan in January 2005. The IRTF observations help to predict where the probe will land.

Observing the surface of Titan: Observations from the IRTF show that significant regions of Titan are covered with water ice. The high areas of Titan are probably composed mostly of water ice, and the low regions are covered with a kind of "hydrocarbon ocean."