Our Solar System’s Planets: Neptune

Our Solar System’s Planets: Neptune


Look up into a clear night sky with your naked
eye, and what planets could you see? Technically you would be able to see all of
them at one time or another, all of them apart from Neptune. It is the smallest of the gas giants, and
also the furthest away. And it is a perplexing place. You would think a planet so far from the Sun
wouldn’t have a dynamic atmosphere that exhibits ginormous storms and super-fast winds. So why is this planet as interesting as it
is? I’m Alex McColgan, and you’re watching
Astrum, and today we’re going to delve into everything you could want to know about Neptune. Let’s start right at the beginning. Neptune is the only planet found through mathematical
prediction. You see, when Uranus was discovered and astronomers
were plotting its orbit, they noticed that Uranus wasn’t following their models. From the perturbed orbit of Uranus, Urbain
Le Verrier in 1846 concluded that there must be another undiscovered planet, and he predicted where it should be, and remarkably Johann Galle was
able to find it only a degree away from the predicted point. Triton, Neptune’s biggest moon was discovered
a few days later. Since then, Neptune was little understood
as its distance from Earth and very small apparent size meant it couldn’t be studied
from ground based telescopes easily. It wasn’t until 1989 when Voyager 2 arrived
that a huge amount of information about the planet became available. Suddenly we could see what the planet looked
like, confirmed planetary rings, and discovered a lot of previously unknown moons. But let’s get to today. What do we know about this planet now? Since Pluto’s demotion to ‘not a planet’
status, Neptune is the 8th and furthest planet from the Sun. It orbits at about 30AU from the Sun on average,
which means it’s 30 times further than the Earth’s orbit from the Sun. 30AU in other words is 4.5 billion km, and
from that you can see why it would take a space probe – using current technology – 13
years to reach Neptune. 4.5 billion km is a considerable distance. Because of this long orbit, it takes a huge
165 years to orbit the Sun once, which means we’ve only seen one Neptunian year since
its discovery. This distance from the Sun means the average
temperature in Neptune’s atmosphere is very cold, -201c. Its axial tilt is 28°, meaning it’s similar
to Earth and Mars, which have 23° and 25° respectively. This means it has seasons similar to Earth
and Mars too, the big difference being these 4 seasons last 40 Earth years each. At this moment in time, the southern hemisphere
is experiencing summer. And during this summer, the southern hemisphere
has actually got brighter, thought to be a result of interactions with the Sun. Which is strange, as you would have thought
because the Sun is 900 times dimmer on Neptune than on Earth, from that distance it wouldn’t
make much of an impact. But even if it is only a small impact, it
makes an impact nonetheless, and the brightening of the Southern hemisphere is thought to be
due to the southern hemisphere warming up by about 10c compared to the rest of the planet. This comparably higher temperature has released
frozen Methane gas into the stratosphere, whereas elsewhere on the planet it remains
frozen and stays deeper in the troposphere. Just a quick recap of the spheres of a planet,
the troposphere is the lowest atmospheric layer, followed by the stratosphere. Above those layers are the Mesosphere, the
Thermosphere and then the Exosphere. That’s a very interesting topic in itself
but we’ll save it for another video. If you look at the weather on Neptune, it
actually has the fastest wind speed of any planet, with wind speeds blowing westward
on the equator reaching a staggering 2,160kph, nearly a supersonic flow. And interestingly, most wind travels retrograde to the rotation
of the planet. Bands are also formed on the planet, as well
as colossal storms. When Voyager 2 passed the planet by in 1989,
it saw the Great Dark Spot, a storm about the size of Earth passing through its atmosphere. It also saw the smaller storm called Small
Dark Spot, south of its bigger sibling. As Voyager 2 approached Neptune, this storm
changed in shade from dark to light. When Hubble was launched, astronomers were
curious to see the fate of these storms to see if they were a permanent feature like
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. But when Hubble was pointed at Neptune in
1999, these storms had disappeared, and storms have come and gone ever since. Giant, bright, high altitude clouds also come
and go. But why then doesn’t Uranus, which is very
similar in composition and size to Neptune, also have such a blustery atmosphere? Don’t get me wrong, wind speed is fast on
Uranus too, but it doesn’t compete with Neptune at 900kph. Can all this only be due to interactions with
the Sun and its seasons? Something else must be at play here to explain
the extremes in weather. I mentioned that Neptune is the furthest planet
from the Sun, so you would have thought it is also the coldest. But actually, Uranus is the coldest planet
in our solar system. Neptune radiates heat from within, whereas
Uranus radiates hardly any excess heat at all. This could be because a large Earth sized
body crashing into Uranus billions of years ago which depleted all of its primordial heat. Now, the more active weather on Neptune might
be due, in part, to this higher internal heat. What is Neptune actually made of then? Its internal structure and atmosphere is thought
to be very similar to Uranus. Its atmosphere is composed mainly of 80% hydrogen
and 19% helium, with very small amount of methane. It’s this methane that gives Neptune its
blue colour, although it’s a dark shade of blue compared to Uranus’ cyan. Again, like Uranus, there is a liquid mantle
of water, ammonia and methane ices surrounding the core. Where the core and the mantle meet, the pressure
is so great that the methane may break apart, and diamonds are formed under the pressure. Likely not diamonds as you or I know it, but
there could be a liquid carbon ocean with solid diamond bergs floating in it and diamonds
raining down in the mantle like hailstones! This is just a theory though as technology
is only just starting to approach recreating such pressures, around the core of Neptune
is thought to be 7Mbar, or 700 GPa, about 7,000,000 times the pressure of earth’s
atmosphere at the surface. Even the two ice giant’s magnetospheres
share similarities. Neptune’s magnetic field is offset 47°
relative to its rotational axis. When Voyager 2 discovered this about Uranus,
the first theory was that it had something to do with its unusual axial tilt, but then
it found out the same thing about Neptune which has a more normal axial tilt. So, the current theory is the magnetic field
is either not generated in the core but rather by an electrically conducting liquid mantle,
or that the mantle deflects the magnetic field from the core which gives it this weird offset in relation
to the rotational axis. Every planet in the solar system hasn’t
actually got a perfectly aligned magnetic field; even Earth’s magnetic north is different
from where the North Pole is. But it’s only Uranus and Neptune that have
such a tilted magnetosphere. Aurorae do exist on Neptune too, but they
are unusual to what you might expect as they are extremely faint due to particles not getting
as charged from the Sun, and because of the direction of the magnetosphere they are mainly
type B aurora, or SAR arcs. Earth does get these too, but they are not
visible and you need scientific instruments to know they are there. They could be stretching across the whole
sky without you actually knowing about it. The difference with SAR arcs as well is they
are not around the poles, but rather around the mid latitudes. Zooming out from Neptune now, we come to its
ring system. Like all the other gas giants, Neptune does
a ring system, although it is very faint as it is not very dense and extremely dark in
colour. Have these rings against the black backdrop
of space and also be this far away from the Sun, and they are very hard to see. There are five known rings in all, and they’re
all named after people involved in the discovery and research of Neptune. The innermost is the Galle Ring, very faint
and quite wide at 2,000km. Next is the first bright ring, Le Verrier. Although it is bright, it is only 113km wide. Next and connected is the Lassell Ring, a
very faint band 4,000km across. On the edge of this ring is the Arago Ring. It is slightly brighter than the Lassell Ring
and less than 100km wide. Lastly is the outermost and most researched
ring, the Adams Ring. It is only 35km wide but one of the brightest
rings. It is particularly interesting as it is slightly
inclined, and it has bright arcs in it. These arcs have been quite stable since they
were first observed in 1980, but usually planetary rings are uniform throughout. The arcs must be material clumping and clustering
up within the ring, but the reason for this is currently unknown! Lastly, I want to talk about the moons. Neptune has 14 known moons, which are named
after water deities in Greek mythology. The most famous and the biggest by far is
the moon Triton which actually contains most of the mass of all the moons put together. I personally think it is one of the prettiest
moons in our solar system, as it has amazing patterns and this burnt orange colour. What is most interesting about Triton is the
fact it orbits in retrograde, and also at an inclination to Neptune’s rotation, which
implies it is probably a captured object and not something that was formed alongside Neptune. Triton might be the cause of the rings of
Neptune, as it would have disrupted the orbits of moons possibly causing them to collide and
break up into the rubble of the rings. Triton is bigger than Pluto, and also has
a tenuous atmosphere. Voyager 2 even saw faint clouds on its flyby. The next biggest moon is Proteus, which is
actually bigger at 400km across than the spherical moon of Saturn, Mimas. Why it is not a sphere is explained by past
collisions of things hitting the moon, leaving these massive craters. The inner, regular moons orbit around the
rings, some acting as shepherd moons. The outer irregular moons are all likely captured
moons. Some of them orbit prograde and others retrograde. The outermost moons of Neptune are Psamathe
and Neso, and are the furthest out satellite of any planet to date. They take a massive 25 years to orbit Neptune
only once. This is because Neptune has a very large Hill
sphere, the Hill sphere being the sphere in which its gravity overcomes the gravity of
the Sun. It has such a large Hill sphere because it’s
already so far from the Sun; the Sun’s gravity has less of an influence around Neptune than
at the biggest planet, Jupiter. Well thank you for watching. There’s only one more planet to go now in
this series, and that is our home planet, Earth. I’ll be sad when the series is over as I’ve
really enjoyed researching these planets and presenting to you guys my findings. Don’t worry though, there’s more series
to start, Our Solar System’s Moons, or Our Solar System’s Dwarf Planets perhaps? Let me know what you’ll want in the comments. If you enjoy this video, don’t forget to
like and subscribe if you haven’t already. Your support keeps me going, really, so please
help out where you can! See you next time.

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