Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 2002 September 22 - Two Hours Before Neptune
Explanation: Two hours before closest approach to Neptune in 1989, the Voyager 2 robot spacecraft snapped this picture. Clearly visible for the first time were long light-colored cirrus-type clouds floating high in Neptune's atmosphere. Shadows of these clouds can even be seen on lower cloud decks. Most of Neptune's atmosphere is made of hydrogen and helium, which is invisible. Neptune's blue color therefore comes from smaller amounts of atmospheric methane, which preferentially absorbs red light. Neptune has the fastest winds in the Solar System, with gusts reaching 2000 kilometers per hour. Speculation holds that diamonds may be created in the dense hot conditions that exist under the clouds-tops of Uranus and Neptune.
APOD: 2004 June 26 - Neptune: Still Springtime After All These Years
Explanation: In the 1960s spring came to the southern hemisphere of Neptune, the Solar System's outermost gas giant planet. Of course, since Neptune orbits the Sun once every 165 earth-years, it's still springtime for southern Neptune, where each season lasts over four decades. Astronomers have found that in recent years Neptune has been getting brighter as illustrated in this Hubble Space Telescope image made in 2002. Compared to Hubble pictures taken as early as 1996, the 2002 image shows a dramatic increase in reflective white cloud bands in Neptune's southern hemisphere. Neptune's equator is tilted 29 degrees from the plane of its orbit, about the same as Earth's 23.5 degree tilt, and Neptune's weather seems to be dramatically responding to the similar relative seasonal increase in sunlight -- even though sunlight is 900 times less intense for the distant gas giant than for planet Earth. Meanwhile, summer is really just around the corner, coming to Neptune's southern hemisphere in 2005.
APOD: 1998 February 21 - Neptune: Big Blue Giant
Explanation: This picture was taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989 - the only spacecraft ever to visit Neptune. Neptune will be the farthest planet from the Sun until 1999, when the elliptical orbit of Pluto will cause it to once again resume this status. Neptune, like Uranus, is composed mostly of liquid water, methane and ammonia, is surrounded by a thick gas atmosphere of mostly hydrogen and helium, and has many moons and rings. Neptune's moon Triton is unlike any other and has active volcanoes. The nature of Triton's unusual orbit around Neptune is the focus of much discussion and speculation.
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