Clocking Neptune's Spin
A day on Neptune lasts precisely 15 hours, 57 minutes and 59 seconds, according to the first accurate measurement of its rotational period made by University of Arizona planetary scientist Erich Karkoschka.
His result is one of the largest improvements in determining the rotational period of a gas planet in almost 350 years since Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini made the first observations of Jupiter's Red Spot.
"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."
The discovery is published in Icarus, the official scientific publication of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.
Unlike the rocky planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars -- which behave like solid balls spinning in a rather straightforward manner, the giant gas planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -- rotate more like giant blobs of liquid. Since they are believed to consist of mainly ice and gas around a relatively small solid core, their rotation involves a lot of sloshing, swirling and roiling, which has made it difficult for astronomers to get an accurate grip on exactly how fast they spin around.
"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."
"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."
Read the full release here.