by Oraia Helene
Neptune is the eighth planet from the Sun – and with the recent change in classification, it is now considered the last of the planets in our solar system, at least in the scientific community. (But don’t worry, we’re still going to give Pluto its own article, and talk about that whole reclassification thing!) Anyway, Neptune is really far out there – averaging more than 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. In fact, its location out in the depths of space is why it was named for Neptune, lord of the deep.
Neptune was discovered in 1846, and it was predicted before it was observed, when astronomers noticed irregularities in the orbit of Uranus and began to suspect that there was another planet out there, pulling on it. Based on those predictions, the planet was found very close to where it was predicted to be. Apparently, Galileo had actually observed Neptune prior to this, but didn’t recognize it as a planet; he found it when it was very close to Jupiter, but thought it was a star. (The first time he saw it, Neptune was stationary, because it had just turned retrograde, but there is some evidence that he did eventually notice its movement relative to the background stars, he just didn’t have enough observations to really nail it down as a planet.)
The planet is about four times as large as the Earth, and 17 times more massive. It’s another gas giant with a small core of rock and ice, and its atmosphere consists mainly of hydrogen and helium. Like the atmosphere of Uranus, it also contains a high percentage of frozen water, ammonia, and methane; in fact, its bright blue color comes from clouds of frozen methane. These clouds get blown around pretty fiercely; the winds on Neptune can reach up to 2000 km/hour. Voyager 2 identified a “Great Dark Spot” in its southern hemisphere, which is a giant storm similar to Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot,” and other large weather patterns can be seen on its surface, at least when it can be seen at all.
Temperatures on Neptune get down to -218 Centigrade, or -360 degrees Fahrenheit. Neptune does have an internal source of heat, however; it gives off about twice as much energy as it gets from the Sun. The source of that heat, like similar ones within Uranus and Jupiter, is unknown at this time, though there are several competing hypotheses.
Like the other gas giants, it has rings, but they are so faint that they’re not easily visible from Earth; they were only discovered when the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by the planet in the late 1980′s. The rings are not consistent in their thickness, and so when we do manage to see them from Earth, they look fragmented, not like full rings. The lumpiness of Neptune’s rings is believed to be caused by the gravitational pull of several small moons orbiting in the same area.
Neptune’s day lasts a little over 19 hours, and its orbit takes almost 165 years to complete. It has only just recently completed its first orbit since it was discovered; about a year ago (August of 2010) it returned to the same position in the sky at which it was first seen, and this summer (July of 2011) it actually completed one orbit. The difference is due to the fact that we on Earth are moving through space as well, so a planet returning to the same point in our sky isn’t always the same as returning to the same point in its own orbit.
That orbit is actually crossed by Pluto for periods of about twenty years out of every 248, so that sometimes one, and then the other, is closer to the Sun. At the moment, though, Neptune is closer. And don’t worry, they’re in no danger of colliding, but we’ll get into that in more detail when we take a look at Pluto.
At latest count as of this writing, Neptune has thirteen moons, most of them tiny. Triton is the largest, at 2700 km in diameter, which makes it the seventh largest moon in the solar system. (It’s about one-fifth as large as Earth.) Triton actually has a thin atmosphere, and its surface is a hotbed of volcanic activity. Well, I probably shouldn’t say hotbed – these volcanoes actually shoot out crystals of frozen nitrogen, which can travel up to 6 miles above the surface. It is also the only known large moon to orbit its planet “backwards,” in the opposite direction as the planet’s own rotation. Because of this, astronomers believe it was originally a dwarf planet itself, which became captured by Neptune’s gravity.
Observing Neptune requires binoculars at the very least, or better yet, a small telescope. You can find charts online giving the precise location of the planet – after all, you have to know where to look. Medium-sized telescopes will also let you see Triton. Triton, by the way, is named for the son of Poseidon in Greek mythology, usually depicted as a merman, half man and half fish. Poseidon, of course, is the Greek god of the sea, known to the Romans as Neptune.
The name Neptune seems to have come from the Latin word for “moist,” which also forms the basis for the word “nebula,” an interstellar cloud that looks like a fog or mist. (And if you’ve ever used a “nebulizer” to take in asthma medication in the form of a misty spray, that’s where that word comes from as well.) Neptune was originally seen as ruling fresh water, not so much the sea, but once he became identified with the Greek Poseidon, that began to change, and he came to be petitioned for things like naval victories and safe passage across the water. He was also, however, strongly associated with horses, and seen as the patron god of horse racing.
The energy of Neptune can be hard to define, which is fitting for a planet associated in part with deception, illusion, and disinformation. But illusion is a close cousin of illumination, and Neptune can also reveal those mystical truths that cannot be put into words, insights that stand outside of time and space, outside the universe bounded by Saturn. In fact, Neptune can be better understood by contrasting it with Saturn (who, mythologically speaking, was Neptune’s father.) Saturn gives us the rules and boundaries of what we would call reality – Neptune shows us the ultimate unreality of those boundaries. To function in the everyday world, we need to accept the laws handed down by Saturn, but Neptune lets us see that we’re really just playing a game.
As Robert Hand puts it in Horoscope Symbols, “This is what is called detachment: playing the game for real yet knowing that it is not.”
This tension between reality and unreality applies to the ego as well, which can lead to both detachment from one’s concept of self, and to a sense of personal crisis. There’s a fine line between detachment from the ego and a complete lack of confidence in oneself; between withdrawing from the world to seek enlightenment, and withdrawing from the world out of fear.
The glimpse outside the seemingly hard and fast rules set by Saturn can also give rise to an awareness of the hidden side of the universe, the occult, and the awakening of psychic faculties that “the rules” say don’t exist. Neptune also rules creativity, especially that creative spark that comes from seeing beyond things as they are to find what might be. Idealism is another Neptunian quality, with the caveat that idealism can be rooted in illusion as much as in spiritual insight.
The trouble is telling the difference, something that can be quite obscured by the influence of Neptune. To quote Robert Hand again, “Neptune is often described as illusion, while Saturn is said to represent truth. The relation is actually the reverse: Saturn is the illusion that there is a reality that is truth; Neptune is the truth that there isn’t.”
So Neptune can be a bit confusing! And since it moves so slowly, its influence tends to be large-scale. As I mentioned earlier, Neptune’s orbit takes almost 165 years to complete, which means the planet spends about 14 years in each sign of the zodiac. (When I first wrote this, it was in Aquarius, and remained there until April of 2011, when it moved into Pisces. It then entered a retrograde period, however, and will move back into Aquarius in August of 2011. It won’t really start its passage through Pisces until February of 2012.)
Neptune enters a retrograde period every 367 days, so about once a year. These periods last about 160 days long, with a 16-day stationary period on either side. When Neptune is retrograde, its action becomes more internal, and we can find ourselves much more receptive and sensitive than usual. It can help us pick up on those things about which we are in denial, or areas where we are being deceived; so it can be a good time to challenge ourselves to look more clearly at things we might be hiding from ourselves.
Qabalistically, Neptune is another of the modern planets that doesn’t have a traditional place on the Tree of Life or other traditional correspondences, but some Qabalists assign it to the sphere of Kether, the Crown. This is the sphere at the top of the Tree, the first manifestation of Divinity out of the unmanifest, and since Neptune rules spiritual illumination, and seeing “the game” for what it is, I can follow why some people place it here. Also, Kether is called “The Hidden Intelligence,” and Neptune rules hidden things. Other Qabalists, however, assign Neptune to Chokmah, with Pluto in Kether. This would seem to move Uranus to Binah and Saturn to the invisible or fallen sphere of Da’ath. (Or vice versa, which makes more sense to me as long as you don’t mind getting the planets out of order.) I’ve also seen Neptune assigned to Da’ath, with Pluto in Kether and Uranus in Chokmah.
I’m not partial to any of these schemes, really; I go with the older correspondences that stop with Saturn in Binah and don’t assign planets to Chokmah and Kether, but it’s worth knowing about the other approaches people have taken. The trouble for me is that, including Pluto, we’ve got nine planets (if we ascribe earth to the sphere of Malkuth), plus the sun and the moon. If you use an 11 sphere tree with Da’ath included, that gives you enough room, but in my opinion some of the correspondences start to break down, especially if you move Saturn out of Binah. And personally, I kind of like a Tree that goes beyond the planets to include the stars and the “first swirlings” of existence. Otherwise it starts to seem a bit parochial to me.
But that is a much bigger subject, and we’ve come to the end of our look at Neptune!
This article was adapted from the Astra segment of Media Astra Ac Terra Episode #26.