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Neptune (planet)

Neptune
Neptune from Voyager 2
Click image for description
Discovery
Discovered by Urbain Le Verrier
John Couch Adams
Johann Galle
Discovered on September 23, 1846
Orbital characteristics (Epoch J2000)
Semi-major axis 4,498,252,900 km
30.068 963 48 AU
Orbital circumference 28.263 Tm
188.925 AU
Eccentricity 0.008 585 87
Perihelion 4,459,631,496 km
29.810 795 27 AU
Aphelion 4,536,874,325 km
30.327 131 69 AU
Orbital period 60,224.9036 d
(164.89 a)
Synodic period 367.49 d
Avg. Orbital Speed 5.432 km/s
Max. Orbital Speed 5.479 km/s
Min. Orbital Speed 5.385 km/s
Inclination 1.769 17°
(6.43░ to Sun's equator)
Longitude of the
ascending node
131.721 69°
Argument of the
perihelion
273.249 66°
Number of satellites 13
Physical characteristics
Equatorial diameter 49,528 km [1]
(3.883 Earths)
Polar diameter 48,681 km
(3.829 Earths)
Oblateness 0.0171
Surface area 7.619×109 km2
(14.937 Earths)
Volume 6.2526×1013 km3
(57.723 Earths)
Mass 1.0243×1026 kg
(17.147 Earths)
Mean density 1.638 g/cm3
Equatorial gravity 11.00 m/s2
(1.122 gee)
Escape velocity 23.5 km/s
Rotation period 0.6713 d (16 h 6.5 min)
Rotation velocity 9658.40 km/h (at the equator)
Axial tilt 28.32°
Right ascension
of North pole
299.33° (19 h 57 min 20 s)
Declination 42.95°
Albedo 0.41
Surface temp.
min mean max
50 K 53 K N/A K
Atmospheric characteristics
Atmospheric pressure 100-300 kPa
Hydrogen >84%
Helium >12%
Methane 2%
Ammonia 0.01%
Ethane 0.00025%
Acetylene 0.00001%

Neptune is the eighth planet from the sun, and the outermost gas giant in our solar system. Due to Pluto's eccentric orbit, Neptune is sometimes the furthest planet from the Sun. Neptune is named after the Roman god of the sea.

Contents

Physical characteristics

Orbiting so far from the sun, Neptune receives very little heat. Its surface temperature is -218 °C. However, the planet seems to have an internal source of heat. It is thought that this may be leftover heat generated by infalling matter during the planet's birth, now slowly radiating away into space. Neptune's atmosphere has the highest wind speeds in the solar system, up to 2000 km/h, thought to be powered by this flow of internal heat.

The internal structure resembles that of Uranus. There is likely to be a core consisting of (molten) rock and metal, surrounded by a mixture of rock, water, ammonia, and methane. The atmosphere, extending perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the way towards the center, is mostly hydrogen and helium at high altitudes, but has increasing concentrations of methane, ammonia, and water as it approaches and finally blends into the liquid interior. Comparing its rotational speed to its degree of oblateness indicates that it has its mass less concentrated towards the center than does Uranus.

Neptune also resembles Uranus in its magnetosphere, with a magnetic field strongly tilted relative to its rotational axis at 47° and offset at least 0.55 radii (about 13,500 kilometers) from the planet's physical center. Comparing the magnetic fields of the two planets, scientists think the extreme orientation may be characteristic of flows in the interior of the planet and not the result of Uranus' sideways orientation.

One difference between Neptune and Uranus is the level of meteorological activity. Uranus is visually quite bland, while Neptune's high winds come with notable weather phenomena. The Great Dark Spot, an Earth-sized dark marking resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, disappeared in 1994 but another reappeared later. Unique among the gas giants is the presence of high clouds casting shadows on the opaque cloud deck below.

Discovery and exploration of Neptune

Galileo's astronomical drawings show that he had observed Neptune in January 1613, when it appeared close to Jupiter. Believing it to be a star, he cannot be credited with its discovery.

In 1821, Alexis Bouvard published astronomical tables of the orbit of Uranus. Subsequent observations revealed substantial deviations from the tables, leading Bouvard to hypothesise some perturbing body. In 1843, John Couch Adams, calculated the orbit of an eighth planet that would account for Uranus' motion. He sent his calculations to Sir George Airy who dismissed them with some coolness, leading Adams to drop the subject.

In 1846, Urbain Le Verrier, independently of Adams, reproduced his calculations but also experienced difficulties in encouraging any enthusiasm in his compatriots. However, in the same year, John Herschel started to champion the mathematical approach and persuaded James Challis to search for the planet.

After much procrastination, Challis began his reluctant search in July 1846. However, in the mean time, Le Verrier had convinced Johann Gottfried Galle to search for the planet. Though still a student at the Berlin Observatory , Heinrich d'Arrest suggested that a recently drawn chart of the sky, in the region of Le Verrier's predicted location, could be compared with the current sky to seek the displacement characteristic of a planet, as opposed to a stationary star. Neptune was discovered that very night, September 23, 1846, within 1° of where Adams and Le Verrier had predicted it to be. Challis later realised that he had observed the planet twice in August, failing to identify it owing to his casual approach to the work.

With an orbital period of 165 years, Neptune will first return to the point in its orbit where Galle discovered it in 2011. Due to the apparent retrogradation of the planets, Neptune will soon return to the same degree and minute as when it was discovered (25║ Aquarius 55'), on three different dates. These are on April 11, 2009 when it will be in direct motion, July 17, 2009 when it will be in retrograde motion and finally for the last time for the next 165 years, on February 7, 2010.

Neptune is never visible with the naked eye. With the use of a telescope it appears as a blue-green disk, similar in appearance to Uranus; the blue-green colour comes from the methane in its atmosphere. Neptune has been visited by only one spacecraft, Voyager 2, which flew by the planet on August 25 1989.

The rings of Neptune

Neptune's rings
Enlarge
Neptune's rings

Neptune has a faint planetary ring system of unknown composition. The rings have a peculiar "clumpy" structure, the cause of which is not currently understood but which may be due to the gravitational interaction with small moons in orbit near them.

Evidence that the rings are incomplete first arose in the mid-1980s, when stellar occultation experiments were found to occasionally show an extra "blink" just before or after the planet occulted the star. Images by Voyager 2 in 1989 settled the issue, when the ring system was found to contain several faint rings, the outermost of which, Adams, contains three prominent arcs now named LibertÚ, EgalitÚ, and FraternitÚ (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity). The existence of arcs is very difficult to understand because the laws of motion would predict that arcs spread out into a uniform ring over very short timescales.

The gravitational effects of Galatea, a moon just inward from the ring, are now believed to confine the arcs. Several other rings were detected by the Voyager cameras. In addition to the narrow Adams Ring 63,000 km from the center of Neptune, the Leverrier Ring is at 53,000 km and the broader, fainter Galle Ring is at 42,000 km. A faint outward extension to the Leverrier Ring has been named Lassell; it is bounded at its outer edge by the Arago Ring at 57,000 km. [2]

See also: Rings of Neptune.

The moons of Neptune

Main article: Neptune's natural satellites

Neptune has 13 known moons. The largest by far is Triton, discovered by William Lassell just 17 days after the discovery of Neptune itself.

Five new irregular moons were announced in 2004. They were discovered in 2002 and 2003.

For a timeline of discovery dates, see Timeline of natural satellites.

Neptune in Fiction and Film

  • In Olaf Stapledon's epic novel Last and First Men, Neptune is the final home of the highly evolved human race.
  • Neptune is the setting of the sci-fi/horror film Event Horizon, although it is used purely as a backdrop.
  • Neptune is the intended destination of the mining ship Red Dwarf in the BBC sitcom of that name, but an accident on board sends it into deep space instead.

External links


(moon navigator) | Neptune | Naiad | ...


Neptune
Naiad | Thalassa | Despina | Galatea | Larissa | Proteus | Triton
Nereid | S/2002 N 1's group | S/2002 N 2's group | S/2002 N 4's group
(For other moons, see: Neptune's natural satellites)


The Solar System
Sun | Mercury | Venus | Earth (Moon) | Mars | Asteroids
Jupiter | Saturn | Uranus | Neptune | Pluto | Kuiper belt | Oort cloud
See also astronomical objects and the solar system's list of objects, sorted by radius or mass


Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45