Astronomers have confirmed it: Neptune has a stalker. They have spotted, for the first time, an asteroid follower that keeps a fairly constant distance behind the planet in its orbit around the sun. And there may be many more.
Asteroid 2008 LC18 can’t help itself. It’s caught in a balancing game between the gravitational tug of the sun and Neptune, and effects from its whirling course. The conflicting tugs cause the asteroid not to orbit Neptune or crash into it, but instead to follow the planet from a little distance behind (about 60 degrees on its path).
Neptune has five of the these pits–called Lagrangian points (see diagram below the fold)–but the spots ahead and behind the planet, researchers say, are best for asteroid-trapping, since the hold is particularly stable in these places. Researchers have previously spotted several asteroids in front of the planet (again by about 60 degrees), but this is the first time they’ve found one following it. The findings appeared online yesterday in Science.
Both Uranus and Neptune have quirky magnetic poles—they’re located about 60 degrees off the geographic pole rather than very nearby, like ours is. The reason, researchers suggest in a new Nature Physics study, could be that oceans of diamond—yes, oceans of diamond—cover our solar system’s two most distant planets.
The diamond idea isn’t a new one, but it’s a terribly hard question to study because you have to get diamond to melt in the lab to study it, and this experiment was the first to document the pressure and temperature at which that happens. The mineral is notoriously hard, of course, but there’s something more: Diamond doesn’t like to stay diamond when it gets hot. When diamond is heated to extreme temperatures it physically changes, from diamond to graphite. The graphite, and not the diamond, then melts into a liquid. The trick for the scientists was to heat the diamond up while simultaneously stopping it from transforming into graphite [Discovery News].
Does Galileo Galilei deserve yet another notch in his belt? Besides discovering four of Jupiter‘s moons, studying sunspots, observing the phases of Venus, and examining the rough mountains and craters of the moon, Galileo may also have identified the planet Neptune more than two centuries before its official discovery, one researcher is arguing.
Its widely accepted that in 1612 and again in 1613 Galileo must have observed Neptune, although at the time he thought it was a star, spotted during his observation of Jupiter’s moons. But physicist David Jamieson from the University of Melbourne, Australia, says that history has judged Galileo incorrectly – and that his notebooks reveal that he knew he was looking at a planet after all [Nature blog].