Mike Brown is an astronomer, specifically one who studies Kuiper Belt Objects, those giant frozen iceballs that haunt the solar system out past Neptune.
In fact, Neptune’s biggest moon Triton has a lot of characteristics similar KBOs — it may be one captured by Neptune — so observing it gives an interesting opportunity for a compare-and-contrast study. So this past weekend Mike was using the Keck telescope in Hawaii to observe Triton along with its (adoptive?) parent planet, and took this fantastic image of the pair:
[Click to poseidenate.]
This false-color image shows the two worlds in the infrared, specifically at a wavelength of about 1.5 microns, twice what the human eye can see. Methane strongly absorbs this color of light, so where Neptune (in the upper left) looks dark you’re seeing lots of methane clouds, and where it’s bright there are clouds higher up, above the methane. Triton is in the lower right, and is bright because it’s covered in ice which is highly reflective.
Now this is all very pretty and interesting and sciencey, but if you know me at all you know there’s more to this story.
Mike tweeted about the image, and I oohed and ahhhed at it, of course. But then he tweeted again, saying he was also observing Jupiter’s moon Europa, but it was too bright to get good images using the monster 10-meter Keck telescope. It "saturated the detector" which is astronomer-speak for "overexposed".
That’s funny, I thought. Neptune looks fine in the image, and the random noisy grain in it makes it clear Mike wasn’t anywhere near saturating the image. Now I know Europa is closer to the Earth, so it should look brighter, but geez, it’s a moon, and a lot smaller than Neptune. How could it be too bright to image?
It turns out my all–too–human and all–too–miserable sense of scale has failed me again. Math to the rescue!