Hubble celebrates Neptune's first birthday

By Phil Plait | July 12, 2011 12:15 pm

Just a quick update to my post about Neptune’s birthday: the folks at Hubble just released some nifty images of the big blue planet taken just a few weeks ago!

[Click to poseidonate.]

These four images show Neptune using blue, red, and near-infrared filters. The atmosphere of the planet is laced with methane, which strongly absorbs red light and makes Neptune appear very blue to the eye. I’ve seen it through a telescope and the color is striking; I was using a 25 cm telescope at the time and the planet was just barely resolved as a disk. At 4.5 billion kilometers (3 billion miles) away, it’s amazing even that was discernible!

In the big Hubble image above, the pink color is infrared light reflected from high-altitude clouds, and each image was taken four hours apart. In the smaller picture here (click to embiggen it), several of Neptune’s moons can be seen, showing up as a series of dots as they moved between exposures. At the moment, 13 moons orbiting Neptune are known, ranging from the 2700-km-wide (1600 mile) Triton down to some smallish guys only 40 or so km across. There are undoubtedly more, but the planet is a long way off, and anything smaller than that is really hard to see.

We’ve learned a huge amount about Neptune — all the planets, of course! — since it was discovered in 1846. With bigger telescopes, better detectors, and the ability to leave the bonds of Earth and loft telescopes above the atmosphere — and even carry them on probes that go to the planets themselves, like Voyager 2 did when it flew past Neptune in 1989 — our curiosity has only increased. And to think, we’ve only been studying Neptune for one year…

Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

  1. If I was in charge of things, I’d have at least one probe mission in persistent orbit around every planet (and even Pluto, too) of our solar system; you know, Cassini/Huygens -style.

  2. Aaron

    @ PsyberDave:

    I was thinking the same thing! Furthermore, I would include a fleet of interplanetary probes distributed throughout the solar system, ready to intercept and investigate comets and asteroids as well . . .

  3. charla

    and i’d have a live stream back to earth 24/7 like the puppy cams pluto cam etc

  4. lawrence refone

    amazing pictures!

  5. pontoppi

    If you like Hubble pics, be sure to show your support for the Webb Telescope, currently in danger of being cancelled. After launch, it will be the very same team of people running that telescope as is currently running Hubble.

  6. Dennis

    Sorry to nitpick, but calling it a “birthday” really bothers me.
    Neptune was not “born” on the day it was discovered by humans.
    “Anniversary” seems a much more logical term to use.

  7. Wow nice photos! And Triton is so far off… Why?

  8. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    @Cynthia Moreno,

    It’s because Triton is suspected of being a captured object from the Kuiper belt.

  9. Beau

    Hopefully we’ll all still be around to celebrate Neptune’s 2nd birthday!

  10. And to think, we’ve only been studying Neptune for one year…

    Well one Neptunean year! We’ve studied it for one hundred and sixty five earth years. :-)

    Great images and great write-up here – thanks BA. :-)

    @6.Dennis : ‘Anniversary’ is better but ‘Neptunean New Year’ seems the best one in my book! ;-)

    @7. Cynthia Moreno : Triton may be far away currently – although there are other moons or monlets much further away (Nereid takes nearly a full earth year – 360 days – to orbit Neptune once.) – but its is spiralling inwards and destined to get so close to Neptune that it willprobably be torn apart and become a new set of rings in about 3.6 billion years time.

    @1. PsyberDave :

    If I was in charge of things, I’d have at least one probe mission in persistent orbit around every planet (and even Pluto, too) of our solar system; you know, Cassini/Huygens -style.M

    Seconded by me. I’d also include Eris, Haumea and Sedna plus other ice dwarfs as well. :-)

  11. lqd

    I’ve always liked Neptune for some reason, I’m not one of the multitudes who seem to find it”ugly”. Mercury and Uranus are, in my opinion, the solar system’s worst lookers. I’d love for their to be probes around all of the planets, as PsyberDave suggested. It’s not only the planets that are interesting, many moons (like Triton with its geysers) are odd and marvelous as well. The solar system is still abounding with mystery, and it deserves more detailed exploration.

  12. @ ^ lqd : Seconded by me. Neptune holds a special place in my heart and I think its quite beautiful in its way. Ouranos (as I call our solar systems sideways pea-green gas giant) is, I think, the ugliest – certainly the blandest of our solar systems planets. Your last sentence there is 100% spot on. :-)

    @7. Cynthia Moreno : For comparison, Triton is located at a distance of 354,759 km from Neptune taking five days to complete one orbit.

    Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triton_(moon)

    Whilst Nereid orbits Neptune in an eccentric (comet-like) orbit at an average distance of 5,513,400 km (3,425,900 mi), but ranging from as close as 1,372,000 km (853,000 mi) to as far as 9,655,000 km (5,999,000 mi) from Neptune.

    Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nereid_(moon) via the usual fount of knowledge.

    &

    The very outermost moon of Neptune – Neso formerly catalogued as S/2002 N 4 – ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neso_(moon) ) is apparently the most distant known moon of any planet orbiting at 49 million km in an eccentric orbit orbit taking 9740.73 days or about 26 (earth)years to complete. In Other Words, one Neptunean month counted using Neso is over a quarter of a century long! :-o

    Now *that’s* far out! ;-)

  13. Rift

    ‘poseidonate’ lol, how do you come up with those???

  14. jennyxyzzy

    @lqd

    Oh, what have you got against Uranus – it’s blue, it has spots, it has rings, what’s not to like?! Venus on the other hand, now there’s a planet that got hit hard with the ugly stick. I agree with you for Mercury though :D

  15. Mike Antares

    Uranus is the aqua-headed stepchild of the outer planets – featureless, drifting, mopey. Couldn’t even get the whole axis thing right. It’s colder than Neptune, has a paltry entourage, and its B-field is laughably out of place… Not to mention it’s the one planet every 12-year old kid makes fun of. /sigh. Uranus, couldn’t you at least dress for the occasion?

    Venus, on the other hand, has earned its name, though the beauty of it lies in its mysteries. Often described as hellish, I think of it more as the hottest destination inside the belt. Now, if we could only figure out how to put some roving cameras that won’t melt in the first 10 minutes there…

    Re: distributed probe network – I wonder how long before private enterprise takes on this notion?

  16. Other Paul

    @Iqd – Neptune’s definitely the biz. Look what it’s got going for it – the final movement in Holst’s Planets Suite (pace Colin Matthews) and also the plotting and scheming Neptunian bad guys (guys?) in Roberta Leigh’s ‘Space Patrol’.

  17. Don

    You should see what Piers Anthony did to poor Neptune in his book Macroscope!

  18. PsyberDave:

    If I was in charge of things, I’d have at least one probe mission in persistent orbit around every planet (and even Pluto, too) of our solar system; you know, Cassini/Huygens -style.

    I think everyone here would love that.

    However, budgetary concerns aside, how long would it take to get something all the way out to Pluto, which could then be slowed enough to go into orbit? After all, New Horizons will take 9 years, and to get it there that “quickly”, it’ll zoom right by in the blink of an eye.

    BTW, how come no one said anything about the New Horizons mission’s 2000′th day yesterday? (Only 1462 to go.)

  19. Beau

    @ Jenny

    Lol, at the irony of calling Venus ugly :)

  20. I understand Neptune has 13 named satellites, but according to the press release, there are about 30 known moons orbiting Neptune:

    http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2011/19/image/g/

    All the others are really, really faint as you mentioned. Looking forward to all your posts!

  21. Gary Ansorge

    Neptune has a “surface” gravity only 1.14 times earths. Heck, even I could stand that,,,(if there was actually a surface to stand on) but atmospheric pressure would be intolerable.

    I can just see us in 10,000years,,,with enclosed cities floating in Neptune’s upper atmosphere. Talk about a lot of territory.

    Gary 7

  22. andy

    I guess Messier Tidy Upper powers his nuclear reactors with ouranium too…

    Kind of resigned to not seeing another Neptune mission in my lifetime, pity as the place is a pretty fascinating environment, especially as there is also the cryovolcanism on Triton.

  23. Gonçalo Aguiar

    @ Aaron
    I was thinking the same thing! Furthermore, I would include a fleet of interplanetary probes distributed throughout the solar system, ready to intercept and investigate comets and asteroids as well . . .

    Too bad that aint happening because politicians rather use taxpayers money to pay debt to private institutions (financial markets) rather than fund NASA.

  24. andy

    Too bad that aint happening because politicians rather use taxpayers money to pay debt to private institutions (financial markets) rather than fund NASA.

    They’re also fighting numerous probably illegal wars all over the planet which are probably even less useful to the taxpayers than the financial bailout. Making enemies to justify the spending on the wars is great for the military-industrial complex I guess.

    And then my home country is imposing austerity measures on the public to fund the bailout while simultaneously rushing gung-ho into the new conflict in Libya. Fantastic.

  25. Autumn

    Gary,
    Care to explain your comment # 21?
    If the “surface” of Neptune has about (rounding way the heck off,) one Earth gravity, then how could it possibly contain the huge atmosphere?
    Are you saying that the gravity in the upper atmosphere is about one Earth?

  26. andy

    @Autumn: don’t confuse surface gravity and escape velocity.

    Surface gravity is proportional to M/R^2 where M is mass and R is radius. Escape velocity is proportional to sqrt(M/R).

    For example a 16 Earth-mass planet with a radius 4 times that of the Earth will have the same surface gravity, but an escape velocity 2 times that of the Earth. Turns out these numbers which I chose to make all the results come out as integers are reasonably close to the actual values for Neptune, the escape velocity of Neptune is about 2.1 times that of the Earth.

  27. barnyfife

    Gods creations are wondrous!

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