When scientific discoveries are made there is often a debate (sometimes heated) as to who deserves credit. The discovery of Neptune is one such example. Shortly after the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, scientists noticed that its orbit had significant fluctuations that were not expected. To solve this mystery, they proposed the existence of another planet whose gravitational field would account for such orbital variances.
In 1845, the English astronomer John Couch Adams completed his calculations as to the position of this unknown planet. Although he submitted his findings to the Royal Society (the leading English scientific organization), his work was met with little interest. However, a year later the French astronomer Jean Joseph Le Verrier made known his calculations that were strikingly similar to those of Adams. As a result of the two men’s independent estimates being so close, the scientific community took notice and began its search for the planet in the region of the sky Adams and Le Verrier had predicted. On September 23, 1846, the German astronomer Johann Gall observed the new planet near to where Adam’s calculations had forecasted and even closer to those of Le Verrier.
Le Verrier was initially given credit for the discovery. As a result, an international dispute arose, with one faction championing Adams and the other Le Verrier. This conflict, however, was not shared between the two men themselves. Eventually, the campaign for each side cooled, and both men were given credit.
Until the Voyager 2 spacecraft fly-by in 1989, little was known about Neptune. This mission provided new information about Neptune’s rings, number of moons, atmosphere and rotation. Additionally, Voyager 2 discovered significant features of the moon Triton. There are no official planetary missions scheduled to Neptune in the near future.
Neptune’s upper atmosphere is composed of 80% hydrogen (H2), 19% helium and trace amounts of methane. Similar to Uranus, the blue coloration of Neptune is due in part to its atmospheric methane, which absorbs light having a wavelength corresponding to red. Unlike Uranus, Neptune is a deeper blue, and, therefore, some other atmospheric component must be present in the Neptunian atmosphere that is not found in Uranus’ atmosphere.
Two significant weather patterns have been observed on Neptune. The first, seen during the Voyager 2 fly-by mission, are the Dark Spots. These are storms comparable to the Great Red Spot found on Jupiter. However, a difference between these storms is their duration. Whereas the Great Red Spot has lasted for centuries, the Dark Spots are much more shortly lived as is evident by their disappearance when Neptune was viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope just four years after the Voyager 2 fly-by.
The second of the two weather patterns observed by Voyager 2 is the swiftly moving white storm system, nicknamed Scooter. This type of storm system, which is much smaller than the Dark Spots, also appears to be short-lived.
As with the other gas giants, Neptune’s atmosphere is divided into latitudinal bands. The wind speed achieved in some of these bands is almost 600 m/s, the fastest known in the Solar System.
The interior of Neptune, similar to that of Uranus, is made of two layers: a core and mantle. The core is rocky and estimated to be 1.2 times as massive as the Earth. The mantle is an extremely hot and dense liquid composed of water, ammonia and methane. The mantle is between ten to fifteen times the mass of the Earth.
Although Neptune and Uranus share similar interiors, they are, however, quite distinct in one way. Whereas Uranus emits only about the same amount of heat that it receives from the Sun, Neptune emits nearly 2.61 times the amount of the sunlight it receives. To place this in perspective, the two planets’ surface temperatures are approximately equal, yet Neptune receives only 40% of the sunlight that Uranus does. Additionally, this large internal heat is also what powers the extreme winds found in the upper atmosphere.
ORBIT & ROTATION
With the discovery of Neptune, the size of the known Solar System increased by a factor of two. With an average orbital distance of 4.50 x 109 km, it takes sunlight almost four hours and forty minutes to reach Neptune. Moreover, this distance also means that a Neptunian year lasts about 165 Earth years!
Neptune’s orbital eccentricity of .0097 is second smallest behind that of Venus. This small eccentricity means that the orbit of Neptune is very close to being circular. Another way of looking at this is to compare Neptune’s perihelion of 4.46 x 109 km and its aphelion of 4.54 x 109 km and notice that this is a difference of less than two percent.
Like Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune rotates very quickly as compared to the terrestrial planets. With a rotational period of a little over 16 hours, Neptune has the third shortest day in the Solar System.
The axial tilt of Neptune is 28.3°, which is relatively close to the Earth’s 23.5°. What is amazing is that, even at such a far distance from the Sun, Neptune still experiences seasons (though more subtly) similar to those on Earth as a result of its axial tilt.
Currently, Neptune is known to have thirteen moons. Of these thirteen only one is large and spherical in shape. This moon, Triton, is believed to have originally been a dwarf planet captured by Neptune’s gravitational field, and, thus, not a natural satellite of the planet. Evidence for this theory comes from Triton’s retrograde orbit of Neptune; that is, Triton orbits in the opposite direction that Neptune rotates. With a recorded surface temperature of -235° C, Triton is the coldest known object in the Solar System.
Neptune has three major rings—Adams, Le Verrier and Galle. This ring system is much fainter than that of the other gas giants. In fact, some of the rings are so dim that it was believed at one time that they were incomplete. However, images from the Voyager 2 fly-bys show extremely faint rings.