Voyager 1 Spacecraft Enters New Region of Solar System

[/caption]

Voyager 1 is in uncharted territory. The long-lived spacecraft has entered a new region of space that lies between where our solar system ends and where interstellar space begins. This area is not a place of sightseeing however, as a NASA press release referred to it as a kind of “cosmic purgatory.”

Here, the solar winds ebb somewhat, the magnetic field increases and charged particles from within our solar system – is leaking out into interstellar space. This data has been compiled from information received from Voyager 1 over the course of the last year.

The Voyager spacecraft's compliment of scientific instruments have provided scientists back on Earth with information about what the space environment at the fringes of our sun's influence is truly like. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

“Voyager tells us now that we’re in a stagnation region in the outermost layer of the bubble around our solar system,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Voyager is showing that what is outside is pushing back. We shouldn’t have long to wait to find out what the space between stars is really like.”

Despite the fact that Voyager 1 is approximately 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) distant from the sun – it still has not encounter interstellar space. The information that scientists have gleaned from the Voyager 1 spacecraft indicates that the spacecraft is still located within the heliosphere. The heliosphere is a “bubble” of charged particles that the sun blows around itself and its retinue of planets.

Voyager 1 has traveled far past the realm of the gas or even ice giants and is now in uncharted territory where scientists are learning more and more about the dynamic environment at the far-flung edges of our solar system. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

The latest findings were made using Voyager’s Low Energy Charged Particle instrument, Cosmic Ray Subsystem and Magnetometer.

Experts are not certain how long it will take the Voyager 1 spacecraft to finally breach this bubble and head out into interstellar space. Best estimates place the length of time when this could happen anywhere from the next few months – to years. These findings counter findings announced in April of 2010 that showed that Voyager 1 had essentially crossed the heliosphere boundary. The discoveries made during the past year hint that this region of space is far more dynamic than previously thought.

Voyager 1 has entered into a region of space between the sun's influence and the beginning of interstellar space that NASA has dubbed the "stagnation region." Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

The magnetometer aboard Voyager 1 has picked up an increase in the intensity of the magnetic field located within this “stagnation field.” Essentially the inward pressure from interstellar space is compressing the magnetic field to twice its original density. The spacecraft has also detected a 100-fold increase in the intensity of high-energy electrons diffusing into our solar system from outside – this is yet another indicator that Voyager 1 is approaching the heliosphere.

The interplanetary probe was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager 1’s sister ship, Voyager 2 is also in good health and is about 9 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) from the sun (it too was launched in 1977). The spacecraft itself was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Voyager is a mission of discovery and it’s at the edge of the solar system still making discoveries,” said Stone said. “The stagnation is the latest in the whole journey of discovery. We are all excited because we believe it means we’re getting very close to boundary of heliosphere and the entry into interstellar space.”

Both of the Voyager spacecraft were thrust to orbit by the powerful Titan boosters - and both in the same year - 1977. Photo Credit: NASA

“Pluto-Killer” Sets Sights on Neptune

[/caption]

The confessed (and remorseless) “Pluto Killer” Mike Brown has turned his gaze – and the 10-meter telescope at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii – on Neptune, our solar system’s furthest “official” planet. But no worries for Neptune – Mike isn’t after its planetary status… he’s taken some beautiful infrared images instead!

Normally only visible as a featureless blue speck in telescopes, Brown’s image of Neptune — along with its largest moon Triton —  shows the icy gas giant in infrared light, glowing bright red and orange.

Neptune and Triton in infrared. Credit: Mike Brown/CalTech.

Brown’s initial intention was not just to get some pretty pictures of planets. The target of the imaging mission was Triton and to learn more about the placement of its methane, nitrogen and seasonal frosts, and this sort of research required infrared imaging. Of course, Neptune turned out to be quite photogenic itself.

“The big difference is doing the imaging in the infrared where methane absorbs most of the photons,” said Brown. “So the bright places are high clouds where the sunlight reflects off of them before it had a chance to pass through much of the atmosphere. Dark is clear atmosphere full of methane absorption.

“I just thought it was so spectacular that I should post it.”

No argument here, Mike!

Neptune, now officially the outermost planet in our solar system, is the fourth largest planet and boasts the highest wind speeds yet discovered — 1,250 mph winds scream around its frigid skies! Like the other gas giants Neptune has a system of rings, although nowhere near as extravagant as Saturn’s. It has 13 known moons, of which Triton is the largest.

With its retrograde orbit, Triton is believed to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object now in orbit around Neptune. Kuiper Belt Objects are Mike Brown’s specialty, as he is the astronomer most well-known for beginning the whole process that got Pluto demoted from the official planet list back in 2006.

Read more on Skymania.com here.

_______________

Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor or on Facebook for the most up-to-date astronomy awesomeness!

Hubble’s New Views of Neptune

[/caption]

To celebrate the first complete orbit of the planet Neptue since its discovery in 1846, the Hubble Space Telescope took a series of images with the Wide Field Camera 3, showing the different faces of the planet as it rotates on its axis. The images were take on June 25-26, 2011.

Even with a telescope as powerful as Hubble, the planet still appears fairly small, but some details are visible. While its blue color is the most distinctive feature, the turbulent conditions in the planet’s atmosphere also show up. Neptune’s thick atmosphere is largely made up of hydrogen and helium and is thought to host the Solar System’s most furious storms, with winds of up to 2000 km/h.

See more about Neptune and these images from ESA’s Hubble page (including access to wallpaper-sized images) and tead more about Neptune’s discovery and anniversary in our article by Tammy Plotner.

Happy Anniversary, Neptune!

Neptune photographed by Voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Today, July 11, 2011 marks the first full orbit of the planet Neptune since its discovery on the night of September 23-24, 1846. But there’s a lot more to learn about this anniversary than just the date. Step inside and let’s find out…

Pinpointing Neptune is a wonderful story. For many years we’ve been taught that the discovery of Neptune was done by mathematical calculations. This came about in 1821 when Alexis Bouvard was publishing his findings for Uranus and noticed a gravitational perturbation. This led him to hypothesize an unknown body was crossing the path. Enter miscommunications, politics and astronomer John Adams…

“It is more likely that Adams realised that his proposed orbits were moving ever closer to a “forbidden” zone of resonance.” says Brian Sheen of Roseland Observatory. “Uranus orbits in 84 years, Neptune in 165, nearly a 2:1 resonance, this brings about much greater perturbations than were being measured. In fact the mid 19th century is a quiet period and much bigger swings are evident now.”

In 1843 John Couch Adams used the data Bouvard proposed to begin working on a proposed orbit, but it would be several years later before Urbain Le Verrier verified its existence through physical observation – at the same time as Johann Gottfried Galle. Says Sheen; “It is often said that Adams never published his results. In fact a published paper was printed by November 1846 and appeared in the 1851 Nautical Almanack published in 1847.”

Unknown to both at the time – and in a great twist of irony – Galileo had actually observed Neptune on December 28, 1612, and again on January 27, 1613, but didn’t realize it was a planet. Small wonder he thought it was a fixed star, because as luck would have it, Neptune turned retrograde at the same time as his first observation! But Galileo was a great observer and made drawings of his find. Given all that we know today, it’s pretty astonishing his limited equipment was able to perceive the blue planet, let alone realize its minor movement against the ecliptic meant something. After all, the very concept of the ecliptic plane was new!

“It has been known for several decades that this unknown star was actually the planet Neptune,” says University of Melbourne physicist, David Jamieson. “Computer simulations show the precision of his observations revealing that Neptune would have looked just like a faint star almost exactly where Galileo observed it.”

But we digress…

Today, July 11 would be the anniversary of Neptune’s first full barycentric orbit – a celebration that has taken us 164.79 years of waiting to celebrate. Tomorrow, July 12 is the anniversary of Neptune’s heliocentric completion. However, don’t expect Neptune to be in the exact same position in relation to the celestial sphere as it was on either date. While over 150 years is but a wink in the cosmic eye, it is certainly more than enough time for our solar system to have shifted That having been over simply said, what will happen at 21:48 and 24.6 seconds UT on July 11 is that Neptune will return to its exact longitudinal position in respect to the invariable plane. Is it close to its discovery point? Well, in a sense, yes. It will be within 1.5 arc seconds of its 1846 location relative to the barycentre. In visual terms, that’s just a whisker.

Is Neptune observable right now? You betcha’. But it’s not going to be easy… You’ll find it at RA 22h 11m 14s – Dec 11 47′ 1″ at its longitudinal anniversary time. Need a map? Here you go…

As you can see, it’s going to be quite late at night before Neptune has well cleared the horizon – but what an opportunity! Because of its small size, I recommend using a telescope for stability and printing a map from a planetarium program for more detailed star fields. It’s certainly not going to look like the Voyager image above, but you can expect to see a slightly blue colored disk that averages about magnitude 8 (well within reach of smaller scopes). If you have never seen Neptune before, compare it in your mind’s eye to one of Jupiter’s moons and you’ll be able to pick it out of starry background much easier.

Good luck, clear skies and happy anniversary Neptune!

Many thanks to Brian Sheen of Roseland Observatory!

Neptune: Rocking The Dreidel

When it come to making your head spin, Jupiter revolves on its axis in less than 10 hours. Up until now, it was the only gas planet in our solar system that had an accurate spin measurement. But grab your top and cut it loose, because University of Arizona planetary scientist Erich Karkoschka has clocked Neptune cruising around at a cool 15 hours, 57 minutes and 59 seconds.

“The rotational period of a planet is one of its fundamental properties,” said Karkoschka, a senior staff scientist at the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “Neptune has two features observable with the Hubble Space Telescope that seem to track the interior rotation of the planet. Nothing similar has been seen before on any of the four giant planets.”

Like spinning gelatin, the gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – don’t behave in an easy to study manner. By nature they deform as they rotate, making accurate estimates difficult to pin down.

“If you looked at Earth from space, you’d see mountains and other features on the ground rotating with great regularity, but if you looked at the clouds, they wouldn’t because the winds change all the time,” Karkoschka explained. “If you look at the giant planets, you don’t see a surface, just a thick cloudy atmosphere.”

Of course, 350 years ago Giovanni Cassini was able to estimate Jupiter’s rotation by observing the Great Red Spot – an atmospheric condition. Neptune has observable atmospheric conditions, too… But they’re just a bit more transitory. “On Neptune, all you see is moving clouds and features in the planet’s atmosphere. Some move faster, some move slower, some accelerate, but you really don’t know what the rotational period is, if there even is some solid inner core that is rotating.”

Roughly 60 years ago astronomers discovered Jupiter gave out radio signals. These signals originated from its magnetic field generated by the spinning inner core. Unfortunately signals of this type from the outer planets were simply lost in space before they could be detected from here on Earth. “The only way to measure radio waves is to send spacecraft to those planets,” Karkoschka said. “When Voyager 1 and 2 flew past Saturn, they found radio signals and clocked them at exactly 10.66 hours, and they found radio signals for Uranus and Neptune as well. So based on those radio signals, we thought we knew the rotation periods of those planets.”

[/caption]

Using the data from the Voyager probes, Karkoschka went to work studying rotation periods and combined it with available images of Neptune from the Hubble Space Telescope archive. Like Cassini’s work, he carefully studied atmospheric features in hundreds upon hundreds of photographs taken over a time sequence… a period of 20 years. He realized an observer watching the massive planet turn from a fixed spot in space would see these features appear exactly every 15.9663 hours, with less than a few seconds of variation. This led him to surmise a hidden interior feature on Neptune drives the mechanism that creates the atmospheric signature.

“So I dug up the images of Neptune that Voyager took in 1989, which have better resolution than the Hubble images, to see whether I could find anything else in the vicinity of those two features. I discovered six more features that rotate with the same speed, but they were too faint to be visible with the Hubble Space Telescope, and visible to Voyager only for a few months, so we wouldn’t know if the rotational period was accurate to the six digits. But they were really connected. So now we have eight features that are locked together on one planet, and that is really exciting.”

Original Story Source: University of Arizona News.

First-Time Solar System Mosaic From the Inside Out

[/caption]

Say cheese! The MESSENGER spacecraft has captured the first portrait of our Solar System from the inside looking out. The images, captured Nov. 3 and 16, 2010, were snapped with the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) and Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS).

All of the planets are visible except for Uranus and Neptune, which at distances of 3.0 and 4.4 billion kilometers were too faint to detect with even the longest camera exposure time of 10 seconds. Their positions are indicated. The dwarf-planet Pluto, smaller and farther away, would have been even more difficult to observe.

Earth’s Moon and Jupiter’s Galilean satellites (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io) can be seen in the NAC image insets. Our Solar System’s perch on a spiral arm provided a beautiful view of part of the Milky Way galaxy, bottom center.

The following is a graphic showing the positions of the planets when the graphic was acquired:

The new mosaic provides a complement to the Solar System portrait – that one from the outside looking in – taken by Voyager 1 in 1990.

These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1, which was more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system which shows six of the planets. Mercury is too close to the sun to be seen. Mars was not detectable by the Voyager cameras due to scattered sunlight in the optics, and Pluto was not included in the mosaic because of its small size and distance from the sun. These blown-up images, left to right and top to bottom are Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The background features in the images are artifacts resulting from the magnification. The images were taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color images. Jupiter and Saturn were resolved by the camera but Uranus and Neptune appear larger than they really are because of image smear due to spacecraft motion during the long (15 second) exposure times. Earth appears to be in a band of light because it coincidentally lies right in the center of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixels in size. Venus was 0.11 pixel in diameter. The planetary images were taken with the narrow-angle camera (1500 mm focal length). Credit: NASA/JPL

“Obtaining this portrait was a terrific feat by the MESSENGER team,” says Sean Solomon, MESSENGER principal investigator and a researcher at the Carnegie Institution. “This snapshot of our neighborhood also reminds us that Earth is a member of a planetary family that was formed by common processes four and a half billion years ago. Our spacecraft is soon to orbit the innermost member of the family, one that holds many new answers to how Earth-like planets are assembled and evolve.”

Source: MESSENGER

Neptune Acquitted on One Count of Harassment

[/caption]

A very popular explanation for the dynamical evolution of our solar system is being challenged by a new model that takes the blame away from Neptune for knocking a collection of planetoids known as the Cold Classical Kuiper Belt out to their current, distant home. PhD student Alex Parker from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada presented evidence showing that the large population of binary objects in the Kuiper Belt gives witness to a different series of events than the Nice Model – which says Neptune’s migrations were responsible for a sending KBO’s into chaotic orbits. “Kuiper binaries paint a different picture,” Parker said during a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences meeting this week. “I should title my talk as ‘Neptune not guilty of harassment’ or perhaps more accurately, “Planet Neptune acquitted of one count of harassment.’”

The Nice Model holds that the objects in the scattered Kuiper Belt were placed in their current positions by interactions with Neptune’s migrating resonances. Originally, the Model says, the Kuiper belt was much denser and closer to the Sun, with an outer edge at approximately 30 AU. Its inner edge would have been just beyond the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, which were in turn far closer to the Sun when they formed. As Neptune migrated outward, it approached the objects in the proto-Kuiper belt, capturing some of them into resonances and sending others into chaotic orbits.

But the survey of the Kuiper Belt being done by Parker and his thesis supervisor Dr. J. J Kavelaars (Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics), which has been running for a decade, tells a different story. “Thirty per cent of Kuiper Belt Objects are binaries, some in very wide orbits around each other in a slow waltz, weakly bound to their partners,” Parker said. “These binaries should have been destroyed if the Kuiper Belt Objects were thrown out of solar system.”

Since binaries are extremely common in the Kuiper Belt, they are useful tools for astronomers, said Parker. “Pluto and Charon are the most famous of these binaries and since their orbits can be affected by their environment, we can use them to test what the interplanetary environment is like and what it was like in the past.”

Diagram illustrating the process that destroys binaries during close encounters. Credit: University of Victoria

Using computer simulations, the researchers determined that many binary systems in part of the Belt would have been destroyed by the manhandling they would have experienced if Neptune did indeed move the Kuiper Belt to its current location.

The survey characterizes the orbits of these binaries and found that many are extremely wide – the widest one is about 100,000 km – and they are very delicate. “Because they are so weakly bound they can be upset by collisions from small objects peppering the KBOs,” said Parker, “and they would not be there today if the members of this part of the Kuiper Belt were ever hassled by Neptune in the past.”

Additionally, the current environment of the Kuiper Belt does not lend itself to the creation of these binaries, so they have been interacting with each other for a very long time. The research done by Parker and his colleagues suggest that the Kuiper Belt formed near its present location and has remained undisturbed over the age of the solar system.

The new model also solves the missing mass problem for the Kuiper Belt, Parker said. “The Nice Model – as well as all the other models of the formation of the Kuiper Belt — suggests its density was much higher so the binaries could be generated, but we don’t see that density today.”

The Cold Classical Kuiper Belt lies in a very flat ring between 6 and 7 billion kilometers from the Sun, and contains thousands of bodies larger than 100 kilometers across. The Kuiper Belt is of special interest to astrophysicists because it is a fossil remnant of the primordial debris that formed the planets, said Parker. “Understanding the structure and history of the Kuiper Belt helps us better understand how the planets in our solar system formed, and how planets around other stars may be forming today.”

Read the team’s paper: “Destruction of Binary Minor Planets During Neptune Scattering,” Alex H. Parker, JJ Kavelaars

Sources: DPS meeting press briefing, DPS abstract, University of Victoria press release.

Trojans May Yet Rain Down

It would be an interesting survey to catalog the initial reactions readers have to “Trojans”. Do you think first of wooden horses, or do asteroids spring to mind? Given the context of this website, I’d hope it’s the latter. If so, you’re thinking along the right lines. But how much do you really know about astronomical Trojans?

While most frequently used to discuss the set of objects in Jupiter’s orbital path that lie 60º ahead and behind the planet, orbiting the L4 and L5 Lagrange points, the term can be expanded to include any family of objects orbiting these points of relative stability around any other object. While Jupiter’s Trojan family is known to include over 3,000 objects, other solar system objects have been discovered with families of their own. Even one of Saturn’s moons, Tethys, has objects in its Lagrange points (although in this case, the objects are full moons in their own right: Calypso and Telesto).

In the past decade Neptunian Trojans have been discovered. By the end of this summer, six have been confirmed. Yet despite this small sample, these objects have some unexpected properties and may outnumber the number of asteroids in the main belt by an order of magnitude. However, they aren’t permanent and a paper published in the July issue of the International Journal of Astrobiology suggests that these reservoirs may produce many of the short period comets we see and “contribute a significant fraction of the impact hazard to the Earth.”

The origin of short period comets is an unusual one. While the sources of near Earth asteroids and long period comets have been well established, short period comets parent locations have been harder to pin down. Many have orbits with aphelions in the outer solar system, well past Neptune. This led to the independent prediction of a source of bodies in the far reaches by Edgeworth (1943) and Kuiper (1951). Yet others have aphelions well within the solar system. While some of this could be attributed to loss of energy from close passes to planets, it did not sufficiently account for the full number and astronomers began searching for other sources.

In 2006, J. Horner and N. Evans demonstrated the potential for objects from the outer solar system to be captured by the Jovian planets. In that paper, Horner and Evans considered the longevity of the stability of such captures for Jupiter Trojans. The two found that these objects were stable for billions of years but could eventually leak out. This would provide a storing of potential comets to help account for some of the oddities.

However, the Jupiter population is dynamically “cold” and does not contain a large distribution of velocities that would lead to more rapid shedding. Similarly, Saturn’s Trojan family was not found to be excited and was estimated to have a half life of ~2.5 billion years. One of the oddities of the Neptunian Trojans is that those few discovered thus far have tended to have high inclinations. This indicates that this family may be more dynamically excited, or “hotter” than that of other families, leading to a faster rate of shedding. Even with this realization, the full picture may not yet be clear given that searches for Trojans concentrate on the ecliptic and would likely miss additional members at higher inclinations, thus biasing surveys towards lower inclinations.

To assess the dangers of this excited population, Horner teamed with Patryk Lykawka to simulate the Neptunian Trojan system. From it, they estimated the family had a half life of ~550 million years. Objects leaving this population would then undergo several possible fates. In many cases, they resembled the Centaur class of objects with low eccentricities and with perihelion near Jupiter and aphelion near Neptune. Others picked up energy from other gas giants and were ejected from the solar system, and yet others became short period comets with aphelions near Jupiter.

Given the ability for this the Neptunian Trojans to eject members frequently, the two examined how many of the of short period comets we see may be from these reservoirs. Given the unknown nature of how large these stores are, the authors estimated that they could contribute as little as 3%. But if the populations are as large as some estimates have indicated, they would be sufficient to supply the entire collection of short period comets. Undoubtedly, the truth lies somewhere in between, but should it lie towards the upper end, the Neptunian Trojans could supply us with a new comet every 100 years on average.

New Horizons Mission Practices Telescopic Imager on Pluto’s Twin

[/caption]

This summer, the New Horizons spacecraft was awoken for its annual systems checkout, and took the opportunity to exercise the long range camera by snapping pictures of Neptune, which at the time, was 3.5 billion km (2.15 billion miles) away. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) snapped several photos of the gas giant, but Neptune was not alone! The moon Triton made a cameo appearance. And the New Horizons team said that since Triton is often called Pluto’s “twin” it was perfect target practice for imaging its ultimate target, Pluto.

This image gets us excited for 2015 when New Horizons will approach and make the closest flyby ever of Pluto.

“That we were able to see Triton so close to Neptune, which is approximately 100 times brighter, shows us that the camera is working exactly as designed,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “This was a good test for LORRI.”

Weaver pointed out that the solar phase angle (the spacecraft-planet-Sun angle) was 34 degrees and the solar elongation angle (planet-spacecraft-Sun angle) was 95 degrees. Only New Horizons can observe Neptune at such large solar phase angles, which he says is key to studying the light-scattering properties of Neptune’s and Triton’s atmospheres.

“As New Horizons has traveled outward across the solar system, we’ve been using our imagers to make just such special-purpose studies of the giant planets and their moons because this is a small but completely unique contribution that New Horizons can make — because of our position out among the giant planets,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.

Triton is slightly larger than Pluto, 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) in diameter compared to Pluto’s 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles). Both objects have atmospheres composed mostly of nitrogen gas with a surface pressure only 1/70,000th of Earth’s, and comparably cold surface temperatures approaching minus-400 degrees Fahrenheit. Triton is widely believed to have been a member of the Kuiper Belt (as Pluto still is) that was captured into orbit around Neptune, probably during a collision early in the solar system’s history.

Source: New Horizons

Clearing the Confusion on Neptune’s Orbit

[/caption]

Last week, Space.com had a great article about how on August 20, 2010, Neptune finally completed one orbit around the Sun since its discovery in 1846, and was now back to its original discovery position in the night sky . The original article was widely quoted, and created a lot of buzz on Twitter, Facebook and other websites. But then, later in the day some contradictory info came out, culminating with Bill Folkner, a technologist at JPL declaring via Twitter: “Neptune will reach the same ecliptic longitude it had on Sep. 23, 1846, on July 12, 2011.” Space.com ended up amending their article, but why the confusion? And could both statements be true? Depending on your perspective, perhaps yes.

“These apparently contradictory statements highlight the problems of defining planetary orbits,” astronomer Brian Sheen from the Roseland Observatory in the UK told Universe Today. “There are two ways of following the progress of a planet around the Sun/night sky.”

The first is from the perspective of being on planet Earth (specifically at the center of our planet) – called geocentric longitude, Sheen said, also known as right ascension.

The second is from the perspective of being on the Sun (specifically at the center of the Sun and indeed our solar system) which is called heliocentric longitude, and also ecliptic longitude.

“The orbital period of a planet is measured with reference to the heliocentric longitude, in the case of Neptune this is 164.8 years,” Sheen explained. “The problem of referencing via geocentric longitude is that the Earth itself is orbiting the Sun and therefore changing its relative position to the other planet, this case, Neptune.”

Neptune was discovered Sept 23, 1846. Adding 164.8 years to that date brings us to July 2011, and specifically 12th July. However taking the Earth’s motion into account we have a number of close approaches. Confusion about this situation is exacerbated by the fact that Neptune retrogrades at opposition.

And so, in April and July of this year (2010), Neptune came very close to returning to its apparent position in the sky at the time of its discovery (in geocentric right ascension and declination), actually much closer than it will be next year when it returns to its 1846 heliocentric longitude. It’s location at discovery and currently is in the constellation Capricornus.

But still, Neptune will not complete its first orbit since being discovered until in 2011.

“Given a discovery date of 23rd Sept 1846 and an orbital period of 164.8 years gives a return date of well into 2011 and a rough check gives 9-13 July,” Sheen said. “This accords well with the given date of 12th July.”

This gives us a celebration to look forward to in 2011!