The Block Island Times

A once in a lifetime occurrence

By Daniel West | Jul 11, 2011

I can remember being nine years old and standing on the front lawn of my home in upstate New York, looking up into the clear night sky at a white wisp hanging like a smudge on the cosmos.

My Dad brought out a tripod and his old Nikon SLR camera and set it up pointing skyward. That night we took pictures of the Hale-Bopp comet, which was visible by the naked eye longer than any comet in recorded history.

We stayed out in the cold night air of early spring and snapped time-lapse photos of the comet and the moon and even tried to get one of Saturn and its rings. While none of the photos really came out, I still remember looking up at an event that no other human before had witnessed.

Since then I’ve always been curious about our solar system and galaxy and I always enjoy celebrating notable cosmological events. It is in that vein that I would like to wish everyone a very happy New Year … on Neptune.

This Monday will mark the very first time the planet Neptune has traveled around the sun since it was discovered in September of 1846. The planet is roughly 30 times as far from the sun as earth and takes 164 years, nine months and 19 days to make the full elliptical.

Block Island residents might especially take note of this event, not only because Neptune is named for the Roman god of the sea, but also because the island may owe its very existence to the big blue ball.

One current theory for the formation of Neptune, the solar system’s fourth largest gas giant, is that it formed much closer to the sun than its current orbit. Around 4 billion years ago, through a trick of physics, the gravitational pulls of Saturn and Jupiter worked to sling-shot Neptune out toward the freezing desolation of what we now call the Kuiper belt.

The Kuiper belt is a huge expanse of space at the edge of our solar system filled with icy rubble left over from its formation. The former planet Pluto lives out there and is now considered a “Kuiper Belt Object.”

As Neptune sailed into this region, its gravity disturbed many objects, changing their orbits to take them closer to the sun and also to earth. For around 300 million years, these icy comets struck earth and the moon with regularity in a period that scientists have dubbed “The Great Bombardment.”

During this time it is theorized that most of the water we enjoy on this planet was delivered by comets smashing into it. So at midnight on Sunday, lift your glass and toast to a happy Neptunian New Year. Drink it on the rocks and think that without that planet, you probably wouldn’t be sitting on an island with ice in your drink and an ocean under your boat.

And if you miss it, don’t worry — you can catch its second New Year on March 31, 2176.

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