Neptune seen by Voyager 2 in 1989 at a range of 7.1 million kilometers (4.4 million miles). At center is the Great Dark Spot.
The Great Dark Spot imaged by Voyager at a distance of 2.8 million kilometers (1.7 million miles). The smallest detail visible is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) across.
Hypothesized Interior of Neptune. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
Neptune is normally the eighth planet from the Sun, although the dwarf planet Pluto, because of its elongated orbit, occasionally comes closer for periods of 20 years around its perihelion. Neptune is the most distant of the gas giants. It is also marginally the smallest of the gas giants in the solar system, after Uranus, although its volume is still 60 times greater than that of the Earth and it is slightly more massive than Uranus. Neptune and Uranus are more appropriately referred to as ice giants because their composition is substantially different from that of Jupiter and Saturn.
Discovery and naming
Neptune was discovered in 1846 by Johann Galle and Louis d'Arrest following predictions by Urbain Leverrier. In fact, Galileo Galilei, as his notes reveal, had seen Neptune much earlier, in 1612 and again in 1613, but thought it was a star. The name "Neptune," after the Roman god of the sea, was first suggested by Leverrier and adopted internationally soon after.
Atmosphere and weather
Neptune's deep atmosphere extends 10–20% of the way to the center of the planet. At high altitudes it consists mostly of hydrogen (80%) and helium (19%). Increasing concentrations of methane, other hydrocarbons (including ethane, acetylene, and diacetylene), ammonia, and water vapor occur in the dark, warmer, lower regions of the atmosphere. Finally the atmosphere blends into the superheated liquid interior.
Neptune's blue color is mainly due to methane in the atmosphere, which absorbs red light. There is a noticeable difference, however, between the vivid blue of Neptune and the blue-green of Uranus, whose coloration is also the result of atmospheric methane. Some additional component must be responsible for Neptune's distinctive hue but the identity of this extra component remains a mystery.
Despite its great distance from the Sun and lower energy input, Neptune has the strongest winds recorded on any planet – three times stronger than Jupiter's and nine times stronger than Earth's. In 1989, Voyager 2 tracked a large, dark, oval storm in Neptune's southern hemisphere. This hurricane-like "Great Dark Spot" was big enough to contain the entire Earth, spun counterclockwise, and moved westward at almost 1,200 kilometers per hour (750 mph). Winds blowing near the Great Dark Spot were clocked at up to 2,400 kilometers per hour (1,500 mph). (Subsequent images from the Hubble Space Telescope showed no sign of the Great Dark Spot. A comparable spot appeared in 1994 in Neptune's northern hemisphere but had disappeared by 1997.) Voyager 2 also photographed clouds casting shadows on a lower cloud deck, enabling scientists to visually measure the altitude differences between the upper and lower cloud decks. Another feature revealed by Voyager was a small, irregularly shaped, eastward-moving cloud, which scudded around Neptune every 16 hours or so. Nicknamed "Scooter" it is thought that it might have been a plume rising above a deeper cloud deck.
Below the atmosphere is a liquid hydrogen layer including helium and methane. The lower layer is liquid hydrogen compounds, oxygen, and nitrogen. It is believed that the planet's core comprises rock and ice. Average density, as well as the greatest proportion of core per planet size, is the greatest among the gaseous planets.
It probably has a rocky core covered by a icy crust, buried deep under a thick atmosphere. The first two thirds of Neptune is thought to be composed of a mixture of molten rock, water, liquid ammonia and methane; the outer third is a mixture of heated gases.
As in the case of Uranus, Neptune's magnetic field is strongly tilted relative to its rotational axis, by 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.
Moons and rings
Exploration by spacecraft
Neptune has been visited to date by only one spacecraft, Voyager 2, which flew by on August 25, 1989. Various other Neptune missions have been discussed but nothing is currently planned or being developed.
|semimajor axis||4,498 million km (2,796 million miles, 30.1 AU)|
|orbital period||164.88 years|
|equatorial diameter||49,528 km (30,782 miles), 3.88 × Earth|
|axial period||16.11 hours (16 h 6 min 36 s)|
|mass (Earth = 1)||17.15|
|mean density||1.64 g/cm3|
|gravity at cloud tops (Earth = 1)||1.14|
|escape velocity||23.5 km/s (84,600 km/h, 52,600 mph)|
|atmospheric composition||80% hydrogen, 18.5% helium, 1.5% methane|
|mean temperature (cloud tops)||-220 ºC (-364 ºF)|
|number of moons||13|