Neptune: Celestial Visitor

By Andrew Rooke

One of the greatest pioneering journeys of all time, Voyager 2's grand tour of the outer solar system, came to a dramatic climax as the tiny spacecraft sped 3,000 miles above the royal blue cloud tops of the planet Neptune on August 25 last year. Little was known about the appearance of Neptune and its family of moons until the pictures were beamed 4.5 billion kilometers through space to Earth, and then live to millions of TV sets round the globe. The forbidding beauty of Neptune and its largest satellite Triton, brings to mind the teachings of the ancient wisdom, which speak of the giant planet as a "celestial visitor" to the shores of our solar universe.

Uranus and Neptune with tiny Pluto guard the outer halls of the known solar system. Voyager 2 discovered that Uranus and Neptune both have magnetic fields offset and uniquely tilted to the planets' rotational axes [Summaries of Voyager 2's scientific discoveries regarding Neptune can be found in Science, Dec 15, 1989, and Astronomy, Dec 1989]. The physical globe of Uranus lies on its side with the polar regions facing the sun for 42-year periods alternately of sunlight and darkness. Neptune's rotational period was accurately measured for the first time by Voyager 2 at 16.11 hours. Both Uranus and Neptune exist in a frigid twilight zone where sunlight is up to 1,000 times less than on the Earth. Yet Voyager 2 found a turbulent atmosphere on Neptune where the most powerful winds in the entire solar system course around the planet with speeds recently estimated at up to 1,340 miles per hour [Science News, Dec 16, 1989, p. 391].

Unlike the weather on Earth which is driven by the Sun, these winds are presumably powered by heat sources within Neptune, which is the densest of the giant outer planets. The active life of the inner core probably accounts for several vast whirlwinds cutting a swath through the blue hydrogen, methane, and ammonia clouds. The largest of these has become known as the Great Dark Spot, an atmospheric maelstrom the size of Earth which provides a window deep into the ubiquitous clouds. Twenty-five miles above this vast hole wispy white cirrus clouds form and dissipate in a marvelous display of light and shadow, much like the clouds that form on the leeward side of our mountains on Earth. In the southern hemisphere another great vortex, Dark Spot Two, spins about a plume of methane-rich air that condenses to form white clouds that look like a huge eye staring out across the uncharted boundaries of the Sun's domain. A system of rings similar to those of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus wheels majestically around the blue planet. Embedded in the outermost ring are three bright ring segments or arcs whose structure baffles planetary scientists.

In addition to the large satellites Triton and Nereid, which have been identified from Earth observations, Voyager 2 discovered six more moons. Two of these look like huge cratered potatoes jet black in color. In many respects, the largest moon Triton stole the show as Voyager 2 flashed over its rugged landscape, exposing a vast southern polar cap of frozen nitrogen spotted with dark areas and dozens of feathery dark streaks running roughly northwest. Analysis of the photographs last October revealed a pair of huge volcanic geysers erupting 5 miles into Triton's thin atmosphere. Further research this year confirmed that even though Triton is the coldest known body in the solar system, it has its own type of volcanoes [Science News, Oct 14, 1989, p. 247; Dec 16, 1989, p. 391; March 24, 1990, p. 191]. There is evidence of lava flows on Triton not of molten rock as on the Earth, but a mixture of water, ammonia, and methane ices flowing for a time over the frigid surface. This makes Triton, along with the Earth and Jupiter's moon Io, the only confirmed volcanically active bodies in the solar system. Unlike Uranus' satellites which, because of the planet's tilt, appear to move retrograde, Neptune's Triton truly is in retrograde, that is in a direction opposite Neptune's spin, and its orbit is inclined to Neptune's equator.

From Neptune, Voyager 2 left the bounds of the known solar system and is currently searching for the "heliopause," the limit of the solar wind in relation to the incoming influences of surrounding stars. The spacecraft with its messages from the abyss of space will keep astounding Earthlings into the second decade of the 21st century, when it will silently glide on as Earth's ambassador to the stars.

According to theosophy, although Neptune, its twin Uranus, and tiny companion Pluto are held in the gravitational embrace of the Sun, they do not belong to the family of the Seven Sacred Planets which as conscious living entities cooperate in the building and subsequent evolutionary history of our Earth [Andrew Rooke, "The Solar System: Perspectives from the Ancient Wisdom and Modem Science," SUNRISE Oct/Nov 1987, pp. 17-23, Dec 1987/Jan 1988, pp. 47-52. Discussions of Neptune and Uranus appear in G. de Purucker's Fountain-Source of Occultism, 1974, pp. 324-5, and his Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, 1979, pp. 522-3]. Whereas Uranus belongs to the "universal solar system" of visible and invisible planets comprising the solar constitution, Neptune and Pluto are celestial visitors which intruded into the outer reaches of our system, perhaps during the chaos of solar and planetary formation billions of years ago. Just as the planets have captured some of their moons, the sun may have captured the embryonic Neptune when it passed sufficiently close to "the universal solar system on its own plane of being." This may account for several of the peculiarities of Uranus and Neptune observed by Voyager 2 and noted over a hundred years ago by theosophical founder H. P. Blavatsky in her masterwork The Secret Doctrine:

There is a whole poem on the pregenetic battles fought by the growing planets before the final formation of Kosmos, thus accounting for the seemingly disturbed position of the systems of several planets, the plane of the satellites of some (of Neptune and Uranus, for instance, of which the ancients knew nothing, it is said) being tilted over, thus giving them an appearance of retrograde motion. — p. 101
The true Eastern Occultist will maintain that, whereas there are many yet undiscovered planets in our system, Neptune does not belong to it, his apparent connection with our sun and the influence of the latter upon Neptune notwithstanding. This connection is mayavic, imaginary, they say. — p. 102n
Nor do the two last discovered great planets depend entirely on the Sun like the rest of the planets. Otherwise, how explain the fact that Neptune receives 900 times less light than our Earth, and Uranus 390 times less, and that their satellites show a peculiarity of inverse rotation found in no other planets of the Solar System. At any rate, what we say applies to Uranus, though recently the fact begins again to be disputed. — p. 575

This solar process of cometary and planetary capture is comparable to the micro-universe of the atom that captures and discards electrons. Eventually, Neptune and perhaps Pluto will leave the solar system after their karmic visit has ended. In the 1980s a new generation of supercomputers and the evolving mathematical theories of chaos provided experiments which contribute modern evidence to the perspectives of the ancient wisdom [see I. M. Oderberg," 'CHAOS' — A New Science?" SUNRISE, Oct/Nov l988, pp. 13-18]. In 1986 Jack Wisdom and colleagues at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with a special computer projected the orbit of Pluto forward 845 million years. They found that over long periods of time Pluto's orbit entered into resonances with Neptune which could lead to chaotic motion and the possibility of Pluto leaving the solar system. Italian researchers recently found evidence of chaos in the motions of the outer planets in a study known as LONGSTOP, the Long Term Gravitational Stability Test for Outer Planets. Canadian researchers, using computer models of particles in a dynamical system that behaved like the solar system, noted that if the particles started out between Uranus and Neptune "the orbits of roughly half of them became chaotic enough over 5 billion years to be ejected from the solar system" [K. Hartley, "Research News: Solar System Chaos," Astronomy, May 1990, pp. 34-9].

The same river of lives emanating from the sun sustains both the living being of Neptune and ourselves here on Earth, billions of miles away. And just as a visitor can affect the nature of family interactions at home, our celestial visitor Neptune affects the magnetism of the entire solar system — as will its departure. These consciousness-expanding thoughts of the ancient wisdom are now matched by the beautiful pictures transmitted by Voyager 2. The mysteries of the solar and planetary spheres which enthralled our ancestors have become a living reality to millions today through the television broadcasts of a manmade spacecraft billions of miles away, extending the vision of our place and responsibility in the greater brotherhood of the solar universe.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1990; copyright © 1990 Theosophical University Press)


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