Neptune

Neptune_006Dark, cold and whipped by supersonic winds, Neptune is the last of the hydrogen and helium gas giants in our solar system. More than 30 times as far from the sun as Earth, the planet takes almost 165 Earth years to orbit our sun. In 2011 Neptune completed its first orbit since its discovery in 1846.

The ice giant Neptune was the first planet located through mathematical predictions rather than through regular observations of the sky. (Galileo had recorded it as a fixed star during observations with his small telescope in 1612 and 1613.) When Uranus didn’t travel exactly as astronomers expected it to, a French mathematician, Urbain Joseph Le Verrier, proposed the position and mass of another as yet unknown planet that could cause the observed changes to Uranus’ orbit.

After being ignored by French astronomers, Le Verrier sent his predictions to Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory. Galle found Neptune on his first night of searching in 1846. Seventeen days later, its largest moon, Triton, was also discovered.

Nearly 4.5 billion km (2.8 billion miles) from the sun, Neptune orbits the sun once every 165 years. It is invisible to the naked eye because of its extreme distance from Earth. Interestingly, the unusual elliptical orbit of the dwarf planet Pluto brings Pluto inside Neptune’s orbit for a 20-year period out of every 248 Earth years. Pluto can never crash into Neptune, though, because for every three laps Neptune takes around the sun, Pluto makes two. This repeating pattern prevents close approaches of the two bodies.

The main axis of Neptune’s magnetic field is tipped over by about 47 degrees compared with the planet’s rotation axis. Like Uranus, whose magnetic axis is tilted about 60 degrees from the axis of rotation, Neptune’s magnetosphere undergoes wild variations during each rotation because of this misalignment. The magnetic field of Neptune is about 27 times more powerful than that of Earth.

Neptune’s atmosphere extends to great depths, gradually merging into water and other melted ices over a heavier, approximately Earth-size solid core. Neptune’s blue color is the result of methane in the atmosphere. Uranus’ blue-green color is also the result of atmospheric methane, but Neptune is a more vivid, brighter blue, so there must be an unknown component that causes the more intense color.

Despite its great distance and low energy input from the sun, Neptune’s winds can be three times stronger than Jupiter’s and nine times stronger than Earth’s. In 1989, Voyager 2 tracked a large, oval-shaped, dark storm in Neptune’s southern hemisphere. This “Great Dark Spot,” which was large enough to contain the entire Earth, spun counterclockwise, and moved westward at almost 1,200 km (750 miles) per hour. Subsequent images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope showed no sign of this Great Dark Spot, but did reveal the appearance and then fading of two other Great Dark Spots over the last decade. Voyager 2 also imaged clouds casting shadows on a lower cloud deck, enabling scientists to visually measure the altitude differences between the upper and lower cloud decks.

Neptune has six known rings. Voyager 2’s observations confirmed that these unusual rings are not uniform, but have four thick regions (clumps of dust) called arcs. The rings are thought to be relatively young and short-lived.

Neptune has 13 known moons, six of which were discovered by Voyager 2. Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, orbits the planet in the opposite direction compared with the rest of the moons, suggesting that it may have been captured by Neptune in the distant past. Triton is extremely cold — temperatures on its surface are about -391degrees Fahrenheit (-235 degrees Celsius). Despite this deep freeze at Triton, Voyager 2 discovered geysers spewing icy material upward more than 8 km (5 miles). Triton’s thin atmosphere, also discovered by Voyager, has been detected from Earth several times since, and is growing warmer — although scientists do not yet know why.

Vertical relief in Neptune's bright cloud streaks. NASA
Vertical relief in Neptune’s bright cloud streaks. NASA
Discovered By
Urbain Le Verrier, John Couch Adams, Johann Galle
Date of Discovery
23 September 1846
Orbit Size Around Sun (semi-major axis)
Metric: 4,498,396,441 km
English: 2,795,173,960 miles
Scientific Notation: 4.4983964 x 109 km (3.0069923 x 101 A.U.)
By Comparison: 30.070 x Earth
Perihelion (closest)
Metric: 4,459,753,056 km
English: 2,771,162,074 miles
Scientific Notation: 4.45975 x 109 km (2.981 x 101 A.U.)
By Comparison: 30.318 x Earth
Aphelion (farthest)
Metric: 4,537,039,826 km
English: 2,819,185,846 miles
Scientific Notation: 4.53704 x 109 km (3.033 x 101 A.U.)
By Comparison: 29.830 x Earth
Sidereal Orbit Period (Length of Year)
164.79132 Earth years
60190.03 Earth days
By Comparison: 164.791 x Earth
Orbit Circumference
Metric: 28,263,736,967 km
English: 17,562,271,937 miles
Scientific Notation: 2.826 x 1010 km
By Comparison: 30.071 x Earth
Average Orbit Velocity
Metric: 19,566 km/h
English: 12,158 mph
Scientific Notation: 5.4349 x 103 m/s
By Comparison: 0.182 x Earth
Orbit Eccentricity
0.00859048
By Comparison: 0.514 x Earth
Orbit Inclination
1.77 degrees
Equatorial Inclination to Orbit
28.3 degrees
Mean Radius
Metric: 24,622 km
English: 15,299.4 miles
Scientific Notation: 2.4622 x 104 km
By Comparison: 3.8647 x Earth
Equatorial Circumference
Metric: 154,704.6 km
English: 96,129.0 miles
Scientific Notation: 1.54705 x 105 km
By Comparison: 3.8647 x Earth
Volume
Metric: 62,525,703,987,421 km3
English: 15,000,714,125,712 mi3
Scientific Notation: 6.25257 x 1013 km3
By Comparison: 57.723 x Earth
Mass
Metric: 102,410,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg
Scientific Notation: 1.0241 x 1026 kg
By Comparison: 17.148 x Earth
Density
Metric: 1.638 g/cm3
By Comparison: 0.297 x Earth
Surface Area
Metric: 7,618,272,763 km2
English: 2,941,431,558 square miles
Scientific Notation: 7.6183 x 109 km2
By Comparison: 14.980 x Earth
Surface Gravity
Metric: 11.15 m/s2
English: 36.6 ft/s2
By Comparison: If you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 114 pounds on Neptune.
Escape Velocity
Metric: 84,816 km/h
English: 52,702 mph
Scientific Notation: 2.356 x 104 m/s
By Comparison: By Comparison: 2.105 x Earth.
Sidereal Rotation Period (Length of Day)
0.671 Earth days
16.11000 hours
By Comparison: 0.67 x Earth
Effective Temperature
Metric: -214 °C
English: -353 °F
Scientific Notation: 59 K
Atmospheric Constituents
Hydrogen, Helium, Methane
Scientific Notation: H2, He, CH4
By Comparison: Earth atmosphere consists mostly of N2 and O2.