Introduction :

Neptune is the eighth and farthest-known Solar planet from the Sun. In the Solar System, it is the fourth-largest planet by diameter, the third-most-massive planet, and the densest giant planet. It is 17 times the mass of Earth, slightly more massive than its near-twin Uranus. Neptune is denser and physically smaller than Uranus because its greater mass causes more gravitational compression of its atmosphere. The planet orbits the Sun once every 164.8 years at an average distance of 30.1 AU (4.5 billion km; 2.8 billion mi). It is named after the Roman god of the sea and has the astronomical symbol ♆, a stylised version of the god Neptune's trident.

Neptune is not visible to the unaided eye and is the only planet in the Solar System found by mathematical prediction rather than by empirical observation. Unexpected changes in the orbit of Uranus led Alexis Bouvard to deduce that its orbit was subject to gravitational perturbation by an unknown planet. After Bouvard's death, the position of Neptune was predicted from his observations, independently, by John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier. Neptune was subsequently observed with a telescope on 23 September 1846 by Johann Galle within a degree of the position predicted by Le Verrier. Its largest moon, Triton, was discovered shortly thereafter, though none of the planet's remaining 13 known moons were located telescopically until the 20th century. The planet's distance from Earth gives it a very small apparent size, making it challenging to study with Earth-based telescopes. Neptune was visited by Voyager 2, when it flew by the planet on 25 August 1989; Voyager 2 remains the only spacecraft to visit Neptune. The advent of the Hubble Space Telescope and large ground-based telescopes with adaptive optics has recently allowed for additional detailed observations from afar.

Size and Distance :

With a radius of 15,299.4 miles (24,622 kilometers), Neptune is about four times wider than Earth. If Earth were the size of a nickel, Neptune would be about as big as a baseball. From an average distance of 2.8 billion miles (4.5 billion kilometers), Neptune is 30 astronomical units away from the Sun. One astronomical unit (abbreviated as AU), is the distance from the Sun to Earth. From this distance, it takes sunlight 4 hours to travel from the Sun to Neptune.

A 3D model of Neptune, an ice giant planet.

Orbit and Rotation :

One day on Neptune takes about 16 hours (the time it takes for Neptune to rotate or spin once). And Neptune makes a complete orbit around the Sun (a year in Neptunian time) in about 165 Earth years (60,190 Earth days).

Sometimes Neptune is even farther from the Sun than dwarf planet Pluto. Pluto's highly eccentric, oval-shaped orbit brings it inside Neptune's orbit for a 20-year period every 248 Earth years. This switch, in which Pluto is closer to the Sun than Neptune, happened most recently from 1979 to 1999. Pluto can never crash into Neptune, though, because for every three laps Neptune takes around the Sun, Pluto makes two. This repeating pattern prevents close approaches of the two bodies. Neptune’s axis of rotation is tilted 28 degrees with respect to the plane of its orbit around the Sun, which is similar to the axial tilts of Mars and Earth. This means that Neptune experiences seasons just like we do on Earth; however, since its year is so long, each of the four seasons lasts for over 40 years.

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Rotation of Uranus

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Structure of Neptune

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Composition of Uranus

Physical characteristics :

A size comparison of Neptune and Earth

Neptune's mass of 1.0243×1026 kg is intermediate between Earth and the larger gas giants: it is 17 times that of Earth but just 1/19th that of Jupiter. Its gravity at 1 bar is 11.15 m/s2, 1.14 times the surface gravity of Earth, and surpassed only by Jupiter. Neptune's equatorial radius of 24,764 km is nearly four times that of Earth. Neptune, like Uranus, is an ice giant, a subclass of giant planet, because they are smaller and have higher concentrations of volatiles than Jupiter and Saturn. In the search for extrasolar planets, Neptune has been used as a metonym: discovered bodies of similar mass are often referred to as "Neptunes", just as scientists refer to various extrasolar bodies as "Jupiters".

 

Internal structure :

Neptune's internal structure resembles that of Uranus. Its atmosphere forms about 5% to 10% of its mass and extends perhaps 10% to 20% of the way towards the core, where it reaches pressures of about 10 GPa, or about 100,000 times that of Earth's atmosphere. Increasing concentrations of methane, ammonia and water are found in the lower regions of the atmosphere.

The internal structure of Neptune:

  1. Upper atmosphere, top clouds

  2. Atmosphere consisting of hydrogen, helium and methane gas

  3. Mantle consisting of water, ammonia and methane ices

  4. Core consisting of rock (silicates and nickel–iron)

The mantle is equivalent to 10 to 15 Earth masses and is rich in water, ammonia and methane. As is customary in planetary science, this mixture is referred to as icy even though it is a hot, dense fluid. This fluid, which has a high electrical conductivity, is sometimes called a water–ammonia ocean. The mantle may consist of a layer of ionic water in which the water molecules break down into a soup of hydrogen and oxygen ions, and deeper down superionic water in which the oxygen crystallises but the hydrogen ions float around freely within the oxygen lattice. At a depth of 7,000 km, the conditions may be such that methane decomposes into diamond crystals that rain downwards like hailstones. Scientists also believe that this kind of diamond rain occurs on Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Very-high-pressure experiments at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggest that the top of the mantle may be an ocean of liquid carbon with floating solid 'diamonds'. The core of Neptune is likely composed of iron, nickel and silicates, with an interior model giving a mass about 1.2 times that of Earth. The pressure at the centre is 7 Mbar (700 GPa), about twice as high as that at the centre of Earth, and the temperature may be 5,400 K.

Atmosphere :

Combined colour and near-infrared image of Neptune, showing bands of methane in its atmosphere, and four of its moons, Proteus, Larissa, Galatea, and Despina. At high altitudes, Neptune's atmosphere is 80% hydrogen and 19% helium. A trace amount of methane is also present. Prominent absorption bands of methane exist at wavelengths above 600 nm, in the red and infrared portion of the spectrum. As with Uranus, this absorption of red light by the atmospheric methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune's vivid azure differs from Uranus's milder cyan. Because Neptune's atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown atmospheric constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune's colour. Neptune's atmosphere is subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere, where temperature decreases with altitude, and the stratosphere, where temperature increases with altitude. The boundary between the two, the tropopause, lies at a pressure of 0.1 bars (10 kPa). The stratosphere then gives way to the thermosphere at a pressure lower than 10−5 to 10−4 bars (1 to 10 Pa). The thermosphere gradually transitions to the exosphere.

 

Bands of high-altitude clouds cast shadows on Neptune's lower cloud deck Models suggest that Neptune's troposphere is banded by clouds of varying compositions depending on altitude. The upper-level clouds lie at pressures below one bar, where the temperature is suitable for methane to condense. For pressures between one and five bars (100 and 500 kPa), clouds of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are thought to form. Above a pressure of five bars, the clouds may consist of ammonia, ammonium sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and water. Deeper clouds of water ice should be found at pressures of about 50 bars (5.0 MPa), where the temperature reaches 273 K (0 °C). Underneath, clouds of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide may be found. High-altitude clouds on Neptune have been observed casting shadows on the opaque cloud deck below. There are also high-altitude cloud bands that wrap around the planet at constant latitude. These circumferential bands have widths of 50–150 km and lie about 50–110 km above the cloud deck. These altitudes are in the layer where weather occurs, the troposphere. Weather does not occur in the higher stratosphere or thermosphere.

Neptune's spectra suggest that its lower stratosphere is hazy due to condensation of products of ultraviolet photolysis of methane, such as ethane and ethyne. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. The stratosphere of Neptune is warmer than that of Uranus due to the elevated concentration of hydrocarbons. For reasons that remain obscure, the planet's thermosphere is at an anomalously high temperature of about 750 K. The planet is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated by ultraviolet radiation. One candidate for a heating mechanism is atmospheric interaction with ions in the planet's magnetic field. Other candidates are gravity waves from the interior that dissipate in the atmosphere. The thermosphere contains traces of carbon dioxide and water, which may have been deposited from external sources such as meteorites and dust.

Facts about Neptune :

  • Neptune is the most distant planet from the Sun.

  • Neptune is the smallest gas giant.

  • A year on Neptune lasts 165 Earth years.

  • Neptune is named after the Roman god of the sea.

  • Neptune has 6 faint rings.

Some More Facts :

  • Neptune was not known to the ancients.
    It is not visible to the naked eye and was first observed in 1846. Its position was determined using mathematical predictions. It was named after the Roman god of the sea.

  • Neptune spins on its axis very rapidly.
    Its equatorial clouds take 16 hours to make one rotation. This is because Neptune is not solid body.

  • Neptune is the smallest of the ice giants.
    Despite being smaller than Uranus, Neptune has a greater mass. Below its heavy atmosphere, Uranus is made of layers of hydrogen, helium, and methane gases. They enclose a layer of water, ammonia and methane ice. The inner core of the planet is made of rock.

  • The atmosphere of Neptune is made of hydrogen and helium, with some methane.
    The methane absorbs red light, which makes the planet appear a lovely blue. High, thin clouds drift in the upper atmosphere.

  • Neptune has a very active climate.
    Large storms whirl through its upper atmosphere, and high-speed winds track around the planet at up 600 meters per second. One of the largest storms ever seen was recorded in 1989. It was called the Great Dark Spot. It lasted about five years.

  • Neptune has a very thin collection of rings.
    They are likely made up of ice particles mixed with dust grains and possibly coated with a carbon-based substance.

  • Neptune has 14 moons.
    The most interesting moon is Triton, a frozen world that is spewing nitrogen ice and dust particles out from below its surface. It was likely captured by the gravitational pull of Neptune. It is probably the coldest world in the solar system.

  • Only one spacecraft has flown by Neptune.
    In 1989, the Voyager 2 spacecraft swept past the planet. It returned the first close-up images of the Neptune system. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has also studied this planet, as have a number of ground-based telescopes.

3 D Model of Neptune

Source: NASA Visualization Technology Applications and Development (VTAD)

Source Credits : NASA, Wikipedia and Space Facts.