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The Moons of Neptune

The planet Neptune, name for the Roman sea god, is the eighth and most distant planet from the sun. Its diameter is four times larger than that of Earth and consequently, is the fourth largest planet. Discovered in the mid-1800s, it is one of two planets in the solar system that cannot be seen without a telescope. The other one is Pluto. Because of this distinction, it is the first planet located through mathematical predictions rather that observation. It was recorded by Galileo as a star. How is a planet’s existence ‘predicted’ mathematically? Uranus, thought to be the furthest lying planet in the solar system, was observed out of its predicted position at certain times. It was theorized that its orbit was being influenced by the gravitational pull of some large unknown planet.

A young astronomer, John C. Adams, began working with mathematical models to pinpoint this unknown planet’s location. Although his work was incredibly accurate, when he sent his data to his superiors in the world of astronomy, they had low confidence in his findings and did not even attempt to look through a telescope to verify his work. Unbeknownst to Adams, a French mathematician began working on the project as well. Sending his findings to the Urania Observatory in Berlin, Germany, Johann Galle and his assistant located the planet on September 23, 1846. Both Adams and the French mathematician were credited with Neptune’s discovery.

Having no solid surface, Neptune is one of the gas planets and of these it is the smallest. It is theorized that a small rocky core exists underneath the mass of gases making up its atmosphere, but there is no way of proving this. The gases that make up the planet are hydrogen, helium, and methane. It gets its azure blue color from the methane which is the gas scientists believe to make up most of its outer atmospheric layer. The deeper gas clouds are thought to be darker and made of hydrogen sulfide and helium. When Voyager 2 passed Neptune in 1989, photos relayed to Earth revealed a massive dark spot of violently swirling gases similar to a hurricane and analogous to Jupiter’s red spot, commonly called the Great Red Spot. However, when the Hubble Space Telescope relayed newer photos of Neptune to Earth in 1994, it was found that its Great Dark Spot had vanished. It has many faint rings or arcs surrounding it similar to those of the other gaseous planets, although not nearly as distinct as those of Saturn.

Neptune is 2.8 billion miles from Earth and orbits the Sun once every 165 Earth years. At its equator, winds can blow furiously up to 2,000 kilometers per hour. The surface temperature is an uninhabitable -353 degrees Fahrenheit. This distant blue planet has thirteen known moons, or satellites, the largest of which is Triton. Many of its moons were only discovered in the last half of the 20th century when exploratory spacecrafts relayed pictures back to Earth while passing the planet.

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