Hubble Space Telescope is really a discovery machine in high gear – the orbiting observatory has bagged a new moon for Neptune – the 14th for the blue ice giant.
At about 12 miles wide it isn’t exactly a huge chunk of celestial land but scientists are using this new finding in helping them understand how the distant planet got it’s retinue of satellites.
Read my Neptune moon story at National Geographic News.
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Today, Neptune has arrived at the same location in space where it was discovered nearly 165 years ago – one year ago, Neptune time. While Neptune slogged around the Sun over the last 165 years, a lot has happened on Earth in that span of time. This video chronicles some of the major events that occurred on this planet during a single Neptune orbit.
Video Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon and M. Estacion (STScI)
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The two gas giants have a close encounter tonight in the skies above. The conjunction separates Jupiter from Neptune by only 0.6 degrees – just a tad more than a full Moon disk. Neptune looks like a faint blue star shining at magnitude 8, making it just visible with binoculars. A small telescope however will be need if you want resolve the planet into a tiny (2 arc seconds across) bluish disk in the eyepiece.
But don’t worry if you get clouded out tonight – there is plenty of nights over the next few weeks to catch both. As the coming days and weeks pass Jupiter will swiftly leave Neptune behind in the constellation Capricornus and move towards its left as the pair try to keep from setting below the western horizon, which ultimately will happen by mid-February next year. In the meantime try your hand at finding the 8th planet in the solar system using the 5th. Jupiter makes for a great guidepost because it is so bright and easy to locate even with the naked eye.
Neptune was the first planet to be discovered using math to figure out its predicted position in 1846. Neptune is 4 times wider than Earth and 4.6 billion km distant. It is twice as distant as Uranus is from us and so expect to see a very small disk in the telescope eyepiece. Experts recommend at least a 4 inch scope with 200x power to catch sight of the disk properly, and a 6 incher to glimpse its bluish hue.
Is there any hope of actually seeing details on Neptune? Surprising yes, for those with large backyard instruments and under excellent atmospheric conditions. Cloud bands and dark spots have been reported – but its probably easier to hunt down its 13.5 magnitude moon Triton.
Tags: Jupiter, Neptune
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The eigth planet in the solar system remains one of the more challenging of targets for small backyard telescope owners to track down. But we get a break for short period of time as Neptune goes into opposition tonight – August 17th in the constellation Capricornus. That’s when the planet rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west from our vantage point, giving us the biggest and brightest view of the 4.5 billion km distant planet.
Through a 6 inch telescope at high magnification it looks like a tiny greenish disk. Folks at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada recommend using around 200x power.
As an initial place holder in the sky use the superbright starlike object in the southeast evening sky – Jupiter. Neptune will only be 3.5 degrees northeast of Jupiter – that is only 7 full moon disks apart. For those with an 8 inch or larger telescope and dark skies, even Neptune’s largest moon Triton at 13.4 magnitude is within reach.
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For skywatchers with backyard telescopes, the most distant gas giant planet in the solar system is now easy to find above your backyard. Because of its faintness, Neptune is visible only through a telescope and can be really tricky to find since it looks only like a small blue point of light amongst all the stars, But for the next few weeks tracking down the blue giant is within grasp of even the novice scope user because its positioned right above the bright planet Jupiter. You have to stay up late though to see Neptune – about 2 or 3 am. Look towards the southeast horizon and search for the brightest sr low in the horizon – that will be Jupiter. Then with a small telescope trained on Jupiter, look about a half a degree above it for Neptune. The two Jovian worlds are only one full Moon disk apart from each other.
For more on this event read the National Geographic story.
Tags: Jupiter, Neptune
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