Hurray Neptune! You Finally (Almost) Orbited the Sun!
If Neptune were a running a race in gym class, he’d be the kid who still had 12 laps to go when everybody else had already finished.
Neptune is so far out in the solar system that it takes approximately 164 Earth years for it to make a single orbit around the sun.
But if you like astronomy, you’re in luck. According to the experts, Neptune is now in just about the same location where it was when it was discovered in 1846. That means you now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness the completion of Neptune’s first full orbit around the sun since it was discovered.
And according to astronomers, the best time to see Neptune is after the sun sets Thursday night. On the night of August 19th and in the early morning hours of August 20th, Neptune will be as close to the Earth as it gets all year.
That’s still not close enough for you to see it with the naked eye. But if you live in a place where the streetlights aren’t too bright – and you have binoculars or a telescope – you might be able to find Neptune in the night sky. (If it’s cloudy, forget about it.)
Neptune will probably look like a star. But unlike stars, it’ll have a distinct greenish-blue color.
Where should you look? Well, if you’re into astronomy, you probably know how to identify the “Summer Triangle.” That’s an imaginary triangle in the sky with three stars as its points – Deneb in the upper left, Vega in the upper right and Altair at the bottom. If you look in the sky below Altair, the moon will probably be to the right. But if you look to the left below Altair, you should be able to spot Neptune (with your binoculars or telescope, of course).
If it helps at all, think of it as another triangle. Only this time, Altair is at the top in the middle, the Moon is in the lower right-hand corner and Neptune is in the lower left-hand corner.
According to historians, the astronomer Galileo was actually the first person to see Neptune – way back in the year 1613. But Galileo apparently thought Neptune was a star, not a planet. It wasn’t until 1846 that the German astronomer Johann Galle properly identified Neptune as the eighth planet in our solar system.
Astronomers say Neptune is four times as large as the Earth. It’s also the planet that’s farthest from the sun in our solar system. Pluto used to have that distinction – before it was downgraded to sub-planetary status.
Experts say Neptune is nearly 3 billion miles from the sun – so far that the average temperature on the planet is 373 degrees below zero. That makes Antarctica feel like a Florida vacation in comparison. And according to the astronomers, it’s methane gas in Neptune’s atmosphere that gives the planet its greenish-blue color.
So if you’re up late, the sky is dark and you have the right equipment, look for a bright bluish object up above. You might just see Neptune nearing the finish line.