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Mon 11 Jul 2011 11:00 BBC Radio 4

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Monday 11 July 2011

On July 12th 2011, Neptune is one year old - one Neptunian year that is. The furthest planet from the sun it's only now completed one solar orbit since its discovery in 1846, travelling so slowly each Neptunian season lasts forty Earth years.

Too distant to spot with the naked eye the ancients could never have known of Neptune's existence. Nineteenth century astronomers had to climb on the shoulders of scientific giants to see it. First a tiny blue disc now an ice giant whose strange atmospheric features send shivers down the spines of astronomers today.

What twists and turns of fate, what scientific clues and personality clashes won the race for Neptune's discovery? Some say Galileo spotted it 200 years earlier, secretly noting its existence in a coded Latin anagram awaiting further proof. What secret phrase might be lurking in his notebooks awaiting discovery by 21st century scientific spoofs?

It's late spring, early summer in Neptune today. It's been that way for decades. Astronomers can only watch and marvel at the weather on Neptune and the jazzy, jerky dance of its Great Dark Spot - first in the southern hemisphere, then in the north, sometimes gone altogether. What is it? Where does it come from? What can you ever know about a world when even the most advanced human telescopes have only studied it for a season?

Written and presented by Tracey Logan.

  • Neptune - One today!

    Neptune - One today!

    Original photo by NASA. Amended by Sebastian Pease.

  • Discover Neptune for yourself

    Would you like to discover Neptune for yourself? Neptune is invisible to the naked eye but with a very powerful pair of binoculars ideally mounted on a tripod, or a telescope, the planet is now visible in the night sky. For directions to its location in the constellation of Aquarius follow the directions on the sky charts on this webpage. And good luck! (Don’t worry if you can’t see it when you first look, as Neptune will be visible in the same patch of sky for another week, before moonlight makes viewing difficult.)

  • The Night Sky at 02.30am 12th July

    The Night Sky at 02.30am 12th July

    Sky map created by Dr Carolin Crawford, Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, using Stellarium

  • Planet Neptune visible in Aquarius

    Planet Neptune visible in Aquarius

    Sky map created by Dr Carolin Crawford, Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, using Stellarium


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