11 July 2011 05:06 ET
Neptune is about to celebrate its
first birthday. On 12 July it will be exactly one Neptunian year – or 164.79
Earth years – since its discovery on 24 September 1846. But why do we still know
so little about the distant planet?
About 4.4 billion kilometres away from Earth lies Neptune, the first planet
in the solar system to be discovered deliberately.
After the classification of the planet Uranus in the 1780s, astronomers had
been perplexed by its strange orbit. Scientists came to the conclusion that
either Isaac Newton’s laws were fundamentally flawed or that something else –
another planet – was pulling Uranus from its expected orbit.
And so the search for the eighth planet began.
“It was such an incredible mathematical business, it makes searching for a
needle in a haystack look like a 10-minute job for a child,” says Dr Alan
Chapman, author of the Victorian Amateur Astronomer.
Find out more
Happy Birthday Neptune is on BBC Radio 4, Monday 11 July, 1100 BST.
While mathematical predictions had been made over the
previous decades, it was not until French mathematician Urbain le Verrier’s
theories were tested at the Berlin observatory by Johann Gottfried Galle that
the planet was first seen.
After only an hour or so of searching, Neptune was observed for the first
time on the night of 23 September 1846. It was found almost exactly where le
Verrier had predicted it to be.
Independently, British scientist John Couch Adams also produced similar
results, and now he and Verrier are given joint credit for the discovery.
But many claim it was not Galle who documented the planet first, but the
famous astronomer and mathematician Galileo. In his famous work The Starry
Messenger, some evidence points to his discovery.
“If you look at the drawings for January 1613, you can see a fantastic
drawing of Jupiter and its moons,” says Dr Robert Massey of the Royal
“It even includes an object labelled as ‘fixed star’ which is the first
telescopic drawing of the planet Neptune.”
Controversy aside, comparatively little is still known about the
Part of the problem is that there is no way for the planet to be viewed with
the naked eye and until the Hubble telescope, scientific observation was very
So what is Neptune like?
More about Neptune
- Named after Roman god of the sea, it’s the Solar System’s outermost
- Cannot be seen from Earth without a telescope or binoculars
- Covered by bright blue methane clouds that whip around the globe at speeds
measuring more than 1,600km/h (994mph)
- Though its diameter is four times that of the Earth’s and it is 17 times as
big, it is less dense and doesn’t have a solid surface
- It is, on average, about 4.5 billion km (2.8 billion miles) from the
- The distance between Neptune and the Sun varies by 101 million km (63
million miles) depending on where the planet is in its orbit
- Its atmosphere is made up of 80% hydrogen, 19% helium and traces of
- There are 13 known moons which orbit Neptune, the largest of which is
“It’s a frozen lump of frozen gases and I suppose not a
terribly friendly place,” says Dr Chapman.
“Let’s wish it a happy birthday but perhaps let’s keep as far away from it as
we can as it won’t give you a welcome.”
One of the things most interesting to scientists about Neptune is the
“Cloudy with a chance of methane” is how planetary scientist Heidi Hammel, of
the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (Aura), describes
Winds can reach 1,930km/h (1,200mph), creating storms unimaginable on Earth.
These huge storms are seen as dark spots in a similar way to the Great Red Spot
The reason astronomers know so little is because the planet has only been
photographed once from close range – on the Voyager 2 mission in 1989. And because
its seasons last 40 Earth years, only Neptune’s spring and early summer have
been closely documented.
“Every time we go to a telescope and look at this planet, it’s doing
something new, it’s doing something we hadn’t thought of before,” says Dr
What Dr Hammel found was that storms were appearing and forming and changing
much more quickly than had previously been thought. She was looking at a planet
very different from the photos taken by Voyager 2.
“We really have only been observing Neptune with big telescopes since shortly
before 1989,” she says.
“We haven’t been looking long enough. This planet is not for the
The chance to find out more about the planet close-up still seems a long way
away – more than just the billions of kilometres in distance.
Nasa missions to discover more about the planet have been sidelined for the
moment due to budget constraints. The Neptune Orbiter mission, once planned to
launch sometime in 2016, no longer features on Nasa’s
proposed mission list.
“We’ve never had a mission that’s been dedicated to Neptune,” says Dr Robin
Catchpole, of Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy.
“We know how it fits into the sequence of planets as far as composition goes
but we don’t know a lot.”
Even the New Horizons mission to discover more about
Pluto and the outer reaches of the solar system – due to pass through the orbit
path of Neptune on 24 August 2014 – has not been organised to closely monitor
Instead, photos are being taken of it and its moon to test the imaging
equipment rather than for any major scientific purposes.
And this mission is allowing some to question whether Pluto could be
reclassified as the ninth planet in the solar system after its primary planet
title was taken away in 2006.
If it was reinstated, Neptune would lose the honour of being the furthest
planet from the Sun.
“Whether Pluto is called a planet or not is a matter of semantics,” says Dr
“The situation with the classifications is that Pluto doesn’t fit into the
[current] system very well. I don’t think it’s ever going to change again.”
So happy birthday Neptune. Though lighting any candles on a birthday cake
might be tricky in those high winds.
discovery of Neptune on September 24th, 1846
Johann Gottfried Galle was born on June 9th, 1812 according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Gottfried_Galle
June 9th, 1812
6 + 9 +1+8+4+6 = 34 = his personal year (from June 9th, 1846 to June 8th, 1847) = Swiftness. Things happen really quickly. Generating a buzz.
34 year + 9 (September) = 43 = his personal month (from September 9th, 1846 to October 8th, 1846) = Congratulations. Celebrating.
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