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Neptune's capture of its moon Triton in a binary–planet gravitational encounter

Nature volume 441, pages 192194 (11 May 2006) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Triton is Neptune's principal satellite and is by far the largest retrograde satellite in the Solar System (its mass is 40 per cent greater than that of Pluto). Its inclined and circular orbit lies between a group of small inner prograde satellites and a number of exterior irregular satellites with both prograde and retrograde orbits. This unusual configuration has led to the belief that Triton originally orbited the Sun before being captured in orbit around Neptune1,2,3. Existing models4,5,6 for its capture, however, all have significant bottlenecks that make their effectiveness doubtful. Here we report that a three-body gravitational encounter between a binary system (of 103-kilometre-sized bodies) and Neptune is a far more likely explanation for Triton's capture. Our model predicts that Triton was once a member of a binary with a range of plausible characteristics, including ones similar to the Pluto–Charon pair.

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Acknowledgements

We thank E. Asphaug for advice and support and C. McGleam for a critical reading of the manuscript. This work was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under grants issued through the Planetary Geology and Geophysics, Outer Planets Research, and Origins of Solar Systems programmes.

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Affiliations

  1. Earth Sciences Department, Center for the Origin, Dynamics and Evolution of Planets, 1156 High Street, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA

    • Craig B. Agnor
  2. Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland at College Park, College Park, Maryland 20742-2421, USA

    • Douglas P. Hamilton

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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Craig B. Agnor.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04792

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