Neptune is the eighth planet from the Sun. Named for the Roman god of the sea, it is the fourth-largest planet by diameter and the third-largest by mass. Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and is slightly more massive than its near-twin Uranus. Neptune orbits the Sun once every 165 years.
Neptune is invisible to the naked eye because of its extreme distance from Earth.
Surface and atmosphere
Scientists believe that Neptune is made up chiefly of hydrogen, helium, water, and silicates. Silicates are the minerals that make up most of Earth's rocky crust, though Neptune does not have a solid surface like Earth. Thick clouds cover Neptune's surface. Its interior begins with a region of heavily compressed gases. Deep in the interior, these gases blend into a liquid layer that surrounds the planet's central core of rock and ice. The tilt of its axis causes the sun to heat the Neptune's northern and southern halves alternately, resulting in seasons and temperature changes.
Neptune is surrounded by thick layers of clouds in rapid motion. Winds blow these clouds at speeds up to 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) per hour. The clouds farthest from Neptune's surface consist mainly of frozen methane. Scientists believe that Neptune's darker clouds, which lie below the clouds of methane, are composed of hydrogen sulfide.
Neptune's atmosphere extends to great depths, gradually merging into water and other 'melted ices' over a heavier, approximately Earth-sized solid core. Neptune's blue color is the result of methane in the atmosphere. Uranus' blue-green color is also the result of atmospheric methane, but Neptune is a more vivid, brighter blue, so there must be an unknown component that causes the more intense color that we see. The cause of Neptune's bluish tinge remains a mystery.
The main axis of Neptune's magnetic field is 'tipped over' by about 47 degrees compared with the planet's rotation axis. Like Uranus, whose magnetic axis is tilted about 60 degrees from the axis of rotation, Neptune's magnetosphere undergoes wild variations during each rotation because of this misalignment. The magnetic field of Neptune is about 27 times more powerful than that of Earth.
Neptune was the first planet located through mathematical predictions rather than through regular observations of the sky. (Galileo had recorded it as a fixed star during observations with his small telescope in 1612 and 1613.) When Uranus didn't travel exactly as astronomers expected it to, a French mathematician, Urbain Joseph Le Verrier, proposed the position and mass of another as yet unknown planet that could cause the observed changes to Uranus' orbit. After being ignored by French astronomers, Le Verrier sent his predictions to Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory, who found Neptune on his first night of searching in 1846. Seventeen days later, its largest moon, Triton, was also discovered.
Despite its great distance from the Sun and lower energy input, Neptune's winds are three times stronger than Jupiter's and nine times stronger than Earth's. In 1989, Voyager 2 tracked a large oval dark storm in Neptune's southern hemisphere. This hurricane-like 'Great Dark Spot' was observed to be large enough to contain the entire Earth, spun counterclockwise, and moved westward at almost 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) per hour. (Subsequent images from the Hubble Space Telescope showed no sign of the Great Dark Spot photographed by Voyager. 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.
The planet has six rings of varying thicknesses, confirmed by Voyager 2's observations in 1989. Neptune's rings are believed to be relatively young and relatively short-lived.
Neptune has 13 known moons, six of which were discovered by Voyager 2. The largest, Triton, orbits Neptune in a direction opposite to the direction of the planet's rotation. Triton is the coldest body yet visited in our solar system - temperatures on its surface are about -235 degrees Celsius (-391 degrees Fahrenheit). Despite this deep freeze at Triton, Voyager 2 discovered geysers spewing icy material upward more than 8 kilometers (5 miles). Triton's thin atmosphere, also discovered by Voyager, has been seen from Earth several times since, and is growing warmer - although scientists do not yet know why.