Astronomy:Moons of Neptune

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Short description: Natural satellites of the planet Neptune

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Two large partially illuminated spherical bodies: a large one at the top and a small one below it. The light is coming from the left making the bodies look like the waxing crescent moon.
Neptune (top) and Triton (bottom), three days after the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989

The planet Neptune has 14 known moons, which are named for minor water deities in Greek mythology. By far the largest of them is Triton, discovered by William Lassell on October 10, 1846, 17 days after the discovery of Neptune itself; over a century passed before the discovery of the second natural satellite, Nereid. Neptune's outermost moon Neso, which has an orbital period of about 26 Julian years, orbits farther from its planet than any other moon in the Solar System.[1]

Triton is unique among moons of planetary mass in that its orbit is retrograde to Neptune's rotation and inclined relative to Neptune's equator, which suggests that it did not form in orbit around Neptune but was instead gravitationally captured by it. The next-largest satellite in the Solar System suspected to be captured, Saturn's moon Phoebe, has only 0.03% of Triton's mass. The capture of Triton, probably occurring some time after Neptune formed a satellite system, was a catastrophic event for Neptune's original satellites, disrupting their orbits so that they collided to form a rubble disc. Triton is massive enough to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium and to retain a thin atmosphere capable of forming clouds and hazes.

Inward of Triton are seven small regular satellites, all of which have prograde orbits in planes that lie close to Neptune's equatorial plane; some of these orbit among Neptune's rings. The largest of them is Proteus. They were re-accreted from the rubble disc generated after Triton's capture after the Tritonian orbit became circular. Neptune also has six more outer irregular satellites other than Triton, including Nereid, whose orbits are much farther from Neptune and at high inclination: three of these have prograde orbits, while the remainder have retrograde orbits. In particular, Nereid has an unusually close and eccentric orbit for an irregular satellite, suggesting that it may have once been a regular satellite that was significantly perturbed to its current position when Triton was captured. The two outermost Neptunian irregular satellites, Psamathe and Neso, have the largest orbits of any natural satellites discovered in the Solar System to date.



Simulated view of Neptune in the hypothetical sky of Triton

Triton was discovered by William Lassell in 1846, just seventeen days after the discovery of Neptune.[2] Nereid was discovered by Gerard P. Kuiper in 1949.[3] The third moon, later named Larissa, was first observed by Harold J. Reitsema, William B. Hubbard, Larry A. Lebofsky and David J. Tholen on May 24, 1981. The astronomers were observing a star's close approach to Neptune, looking for rings similar to those discovered around Uranus four years earlier.[4] If rings were present, the star's luminosity would decrease slightly just before the planet's closest approach. The star's luminosity dipped only for several seconds, which meant that it was due to a moon rather than a ring.

No further moons were found until Voyager 2 flew by Neptune in 1989. Voyager 2 rediscovered Larissa and discovered five inner moons: Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea and Proteus.[5] In 2001 two surveys using large ground-based telescopes found five additional outer moons, bringing the total to thirteen.[6] Follow-up surveys by two teams in 2002 and 2003 respectively re-observed all five of these moons, which are Halimede, Sao, Psamathe, Laomedeia, and Neso.[6][7] A sixth candidate moon was also found in the 2002 survey but was lost thereafter.[6]

In 2013 Mark R. Showalter discovered Hippocamp while examining Hubble Space Telescope images of Neptune's ring arcs from 2009. He used a technique similar to panning to compensate for orbital motion and allow stacking of multiple images to bring out faint details.[8][9][10] After deciding on a whim to expand the search area to radii well beyond the rings, he found an unambiguous dot that represented the new moon.[11] He then found it repeatedly in other archival HST images going back to 2004. Voyager 2, which had observed all of Neptune's other inner satellites, did not detect it during its 1989 flyby, due to its dimness.[8]


The number of moons known for each of the four outer planets up to October 2019. Neptune currently has 14 known satellites.

Triton did not have an official name until the twentieth century. The name "Triton" was suggested by Camille Flammarion in his 1880 book Astronomie Populaire,[12] but it did not come into common use until at least the 1930s.[13] Until this time it was usually simply known as "the satellite of Neptune". Other moons of Neptune are also named for Greek and Roman water gods, in keeping with Neptune's position as god of the sea:[14] either from Greek mythology, usually children of Poseidon, the Greek Neptune (Triton, Proteus, Despina, Thalassa); lovers of Poseidon (Larissa); classes of minor Greek water deities (Naiad, Nereid); or specific Nereids (Halimede, Galatea, Neso, Sao, Laomedeia, Psamathe).[14] The most recently discovered moon, Hippocamp, was left unnamed from 2013 until 2019, when it was named after the Hippocamp, a mythological creature that was half horse and half fish.[15]

For the "normal" irregular satellites, the general convention is to use names ending in "a" for prograde satellites, names ending in "e" for retrograde satellites, and names ending in "o" for exceptionally inclined satellites, exactly like the convention for the moons of Jupiter.[16] Two asteroids share the same names as moons of Neptune: 74 Galatea and 1162 Larissa.


The moons of Neptune can be divided into two groups: regular and irregular. The first group includes the seven inner moons, which follow circular prograde orbits lying in the equatorial plane of Neptune. The second group consists of all seven other moons including Triton. They generally follow inclined eccentric and often retrograde orbits far from Neptune; the only exception is Triton, which orbits close to the planet following a circular orbit, though retrograde and inclined.[17] File:Neptune's Dynamic Environment.webm

Size comparison of Neptune's seven inner moons

Regular moons

In order of distance from Neptune, the regular moons are Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, Hippocamp, and Proteus. All but the outer two are within Neptune-synchronous orbit (Neptune's rotational period is 0.6713 day or 16 hours[18]) and thus are being tidally decelerated. Naiad, the closest regular moon, is also the second smallest among the inner moons (following the discovery of Hippocamp), whereas Proteus is the largest regular moon and the second largest moon of Neptune. The first five moons orbit much faster than Neptune's rotation itself ranging from 7 hours for Naiad and Thalassa, to 13 hours for Larissa.

The inner moons are closely associated with Neptune's rings. The two innermost satellites, Naiad and Thalassa, orbit between the Galle and LeVerrier rings.[5] Despina may be a shepherd moon of the LeVerrier ring, because its orbit lies just inside this ring.[19] The next moon, Galatea, orbits just inside the most prominent of Neptune's rings, the Adams ring.[19] This ring is very narrow, with a width not exceeding 50 km,[20] and has five embedded bright arcs.[19] The gravity of Galatea helps confine the ring particles within a limited region in the radial direction, maintaining the narrow ring. Various resonances between the ring particles and Galatea may also have a role in maintaining the arcs.[19]

Only the two largest regular moons have been imaged with a resolution sufficient to discern their shapes and surface features.[5] Larissa, about 200 km in diameter, is elongated. Proteus is not significantly elongated, but not fully spherical either:[5] it resembles an irregular polyhedron, with several flat or slightly concave facets 150 to 250 km in diameter.[21] At about 400 km in diameter, it is larger than the Saturnian moon Mimas, which is fully ellipsoidal. This difference may be due to a past collisional disruption of Proteus.[22] The surface of Proteus is heavily cratered and shows a number of linear features. Its largest crater, Pharos, is more than 150 km in diameter.[5][21]

All of Neptune's inner moons are dark objects: their geometric albedo ranges from 7 to 10%.[23] Their spectra indicate that they are made from water ice contaminated by some very dark material, probably complex organic compounds. In this respect, the inner Neptunian moons are similar to the inner Uranian moons.[5]

Irregular moons

The diagram illustrates the orbits of Neptune's irregular moons excluding Triton. The eccentricity is represented by the yellow segments extending from the pericenter to apocenter with the inclination represented on Y axis. The moons above the X axis are prograde, those beneath are retrograde. The X axis is labeled in Gm and the fraction of the Hill sphere's radius.

In order of their distance from the planet, the irregular moons are Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Psamathe, and Neso, a group that includes both prograde and retrograde objects.[17] The five outermost moons are similar to the irregular moons of other giant planets, and are thought to have been gravitationally captured by Neptune, unlike the regular satellites, which probably formed in situ.[7]

Triton and Nereid are unusual irregular satellites and are thus treated separately from the other five irregular Neptunian moons, which are more like the outer irregular satellites of the other outer planets.[7] Firstly, they are the largest two known irregular moons in the Solar System, with Triton being almost an order of magnitude larger than all other known irregular moons. Secondly, they both have atypically small semi-major axes, with Triton's being over an order of magnitude smaller than those of all other known irregular moons. Thirdly, they both have unusual orbital eccentricities: Nereid has one of the most eccentric orbits of any known irregular satellite, and Triton's orbit is a nearly perfect circle. Finally, Nereid also has the lowest inclination of any known irregular satellite.[7]


Main page: Astronomy:Triton (moon)
The orbit of Triton (red) is different from most moons' orbit (green) in the orbit's direction, and the orbit is tilted −23°.

Triton follows a retrograde and quasi-circular orbit, and is thought to be a gravitationally captured satellite. It was the second moon in the Solar System that was discovered to have a substantial atmosphere, which is primarily nitrogen with small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide.[24] The pressure on Triton's surface is about 14 μbar.[24] In 1989 the Voyager 2 spacecraft observed what appeared to be clouds and hazes in this thin atmosphere.[5] Triton is one of the coldest bodies in the Solar System, with a surface temperature of about 38 K (−235.2 °C).[24] Its surface is covered by nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and water ices[25] and has a high geometric albedo of more than 70%.[5] The Bond albedo is even higher, reaching up to 90%.[5][note 1] Surface features include the large southern polar cap, older cratered planes cross-cut by graben and scarps, as well as youthful features probably formed by endogenic processes like cryovolcanism.[5] Voyager 2 observations revealed a number of active geysers within the polar cap heated by the Sun, which eject plumes to the height of up to 8 km.[5] Triton has a relatively high density of about 2 g/cm3 indicating that rocks constitute about two thirds of its mass, and ices (mainly water ice) the remaining one third. There may be a layer of liquid water deep inside Triton, forming a subterranean ocean.[26] Because of its retrograde orbit and relative proximity to Neptune (closer than the Moon is to Earth), tidal deceleration is causing Triton to spiral inward, which will lead to its destruction in about 3.6 billion years.[27]


Main page: Astronomy:Nereid (moon)

Nereid is the third-largest moon of Neptune. It has a prograde but very eccentric orbit and is believed to be a former regular satellite that was scattered to its current orbit through gravitational interactions during Triton's capture.[28] Water ice has been spectroscopically detected on its surface. Early measurements of Nereid showed large, irregular variations in its visible magnitude, which were speculated to be caused by forced precession or chaotic rotation combined with an elongated shape and bright or dark spots on the surface.[29] This was disproved in 2016, when observations from the Kepler space telescope showed only minor variations. Thermal modeling based on infrared observations from the Spitzer and Herschel space telescopes suggest that Nereid is only moderately elongated which disfavours forced precession of the rotation.[30] The thermal model also indicates that the surface roughness of Nereid is very high, likely similar to the Saturnian moon Hyperion.[30]

Normal irregular moons

Among the remaining irregular moons, Sao and Laomedeia follow prograde orbits, whereas Halimede, Psamathe and Neso follow retrograde orbits. Given the similarity of their orbits, it was suggested that Neso and Psamathe could have a common origin in the break-up of a larger moon.[7] Psamathe and Neso have the largest orbits of any natural satellites discovered in the Solar system to date. They take 25 years to orbit Neptune at an average of 125 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. Neptune has the largest Hill sphere in the Solar System, owing primarily to its large distance from the Sun; this allows it to retain control of such distant moons.[17] Nevertheless, the Jovian moons in the Carme and Pasiphae groups orbit at a greater percentage of their primary's Hill radius than Psamathe and Neso.[17]


The mass distribution of the Neptunian moons is the most lopsided of the satellite systems of the giant planets in the Solar System. One moon, Triton, makes up nearly all of the mass of the system, with all other moons together comprising only one third of one percent. This is similar to the moon system of Saturn, where Titan makes up more than 95% of the total mass, but is different from the more balanced systems of Jupiter and Uranus. The reason for the lopsidedness of the present Neptunian system is that Triton was captured well after the formation of Neptune's original satellite system, and experts conjecture much of the system was destroyed in the process of capture.[28][31]

The relative masses of the Neptunian moons

Triton's orbit upon capture would have been highly eccentric, and would have caused chaotic perturbations in the orbits of the original inner Neptunian satellites, causing them to collide and reduce to a disc of rubble.[28] This means it is likely that Neptune's present inner satellites are not the original bodies that formed with Neptune. Only after Triton's orbit became circularised could some of the rubble re-accrete into the present-day regular moons.[22]

The mechanism of Triton's capture has been the subject of several theories over the years. One of them postulates that Triton was captured in a three-body encounter. In this scenario, Triton is the surviving member of a binary Kuiper belt object[note 2] disrupted by its encounter with Neptune.[32]

Numerical simulations show that there is a 0.41 probability that the moon Halimede collided with Nereid at some time in the past.[6] Although it is not known whether any collision has taken place, both moons appear to have similar ("grey") colors, implying that Halimede could be a fragment of Nereid.[33]


Confirmed moons


Prograde irregular moons

Retrograde irregular moons

The Neptunian moons are listed here by orbital period, from shortest to longest. Irregular (captured) moons are marked by color. The orbits and mean distances of the irregular moons are variable over short timescales due to frequent planetary and solar perturbations, therefore the listed orbital elements of all irregular moons are averaged over a 6,000-year numerical integration by Brozović et al. (2011).[34] The listed orbital elements of Nereid are averaged over a 400-year integration by Jacobson (2009).[35] The orbital elements are all based on the epoch of 10 June 2000 Terrestrial Time.[1] Triton, the only Neptunian moon massive enough for its surface to have collapsed into a spheroid, is emboldened.

Neptunian moons
[note 3]
[note 4]
Name Pronunciation
Image Abs.
(km)[note 5]
(×1016 kg)
[note 6]
Semi-major axis
Orbital period
Orbital inclination
(°)[1][note 7]
2 04 IV Thalassa /θəˈlæsə/
A group of three objects, each circled and labeled by the respective designations. Thalassa is the central object designated 1989 N5.
8.7 0081.4 81.4
(108 × 100 × 52)
align="right" | 0000035 ≈ 35 align="right" | 50074 0.3115 +0.3115 align="right" | 0.135 0.0018 1989 Voyager Science Team
3 05 V Despina /dɪˈspnə/
A white oval shaped object somewhat elongated horizontally is seen in the center. There are a few small dark spots on its surface.
7.3 0156 156
(180 × 148 × 128)
align="right" | 220 52526 0.3346 +0.3346 align="right" | 0.068 0.0004 1989 Voyager Science Team
4 06 VI Galatea /ˌɡæləˈtə/
A small white object elongated from the bottom-left to top-right can be seen in the center.
7.2 0174.8 174.8
(204 × 184 × 144)
align="right" | 212 61953 0.4287 +0.4287 align="right" | 0.034 0.0001 1989 Voyager Science Team
5 07 VII Larissa /ləˈrɪsə/
An irregularly shaped grey object slightly elongated horizontally occupies almost the whole image. Its surface shows a number of dark and white spots.
6.8 0194 194
(216 × 204 × 168)
align="right" | 420 73548 0.5555 +0.5555 align="right" | 0.205 0.0012 1981 Reitsema et al.
6 14 XIV Hippocamp /ˈhɪpəkæmp/
Composite of multiple Hubble images of the Neptune system, with the moons appearing as bright white dots. The fainter dot to the upper right is Hippocamp, circled and labeled to distinguish it from other moons in this image.
10.5 0034.8 34.8±4.0 align="right" | 0003 ≈ 3 align="right" | 105283 0.9500 +0.9500 align="right" | 0.064 0.0005 2013 Showalter et al.[8]
7 08 VIII Proteus /ˈprtiəs/
A conically shaped object is seen almost fully illuminated from the left. The cone axis looks towards the observer. The outline of the object is a rectangle with rounded corners. The surface is rough with a few large depressions.
5.0 0420 420
(436 × 416 × 402)
align="right" | 4400 117646 1.1223 +1.1223 align="right" | 0.075 0.0005 1989 Voyager Science Team
8 01 I Triton /ˈtrtən/
A large spherical object is half-illuminated from the bottom-left. The south pole faces to the light source. Around it in the bottom-left part of the body there is a large white area with a few dozens dark streaks elongated in the pole to equator direction. This polar cap has a slight red tinge. The equatorial region is darker with a tint of cyan. Its surface is rough with a number of craters and intersecting lineaments.
–1.2 2705 2705.2±4.8
(2709 × 2706 × 2705)
align="right" | 2139000 354759 5.877 −5.8769 align="right" | 156.865 0.0000 1846 Lassell
9 02 II Nereid /ˈnɪəriɪd/
A small white smeared body is seen in center.
4.4 0357 357 ± 13 align="right" | 0002700 ≈ 2700 align="right" | 5513800 360.13 +360.13 align="right" | 7.090 0.7507 1949 Kuiper
10 09 IX Halimede /ˌhælɪˈmd/
10.0 0062 ≈ 62 align="right" | 0000016 ≈ 16 align="right" | 16681000 1879.33 −1879.33 align="right" | 112.898 0.2909 2002 Holman et al.
11 11 XI Sao /ˈs/
Sao VLT-FORS1 2002-09-03 annotated.gif
11.1 0044 ≈ 44 align="right" | 0000006 ≈ 6 align="right" | 22619000 2919.16 +2919.16 align="right" | 49.907 0.2827 2002 Holman et al.
12 12 XII Laomedeia /ˌləmɪˈdə/
Laomedeia VLT-FORS1 2002-09-03.gif
10.8 0042 ≈ 42 align="right" | 0000005 ≈ 5 align="right" | 23613000 3175.62 +3175.62 align="right" | 34.049 0.4339 2002 Holman et al.
13 10 X Psamathe /ˈsæməθ/
Psamathe arrow.png
11.0 0040 ≈ 40 align="right" | 0000004 ≈ 4 align="right" | 46705000 9128.74 −9128.74 align="right" | 137.679 0.4617 2003 Sheppard et al.
14 13 XIII Neso /ˈns/
Neso VLT-FORS1 2002-09-03.gif
10.7 0059 ≈ 60 align="right" | 0000015 ≈ 15 align="right" | 50258000 9880.63 −9880.63 align="right" | 131.265 0.4243 2002 Holman et al.

Unconfirmed moons

A sixth candidate irregular satellite of Neptune, designated 'c02N4', was discovered in a survey led by Matthew J. Holman on 14 August 2002, but was only seen again by the Very Large Telescope on 3 September 2002 before being lost thereafter. Further attempts to recover the object failed, leaving its orbit undetermined. It may have been a centaur instead of a satellite, although its small amount of motion relative to Neptune over a month suggests that it was indeed a satellite. Based on its brightness, the object was estimated to have a diameter of 33 km and to have been about 25.1 million km (0.168 AU) from Neptune when it was found.[6]

Name Apparent
magnitude (R)
Absolute magnitude Diameter (km) Observed distance (km) Group Discovery year Status
c02N4 25.3 ≈ 10.8 ≈ 33 ≈ 25100000 unknown 2002 Possibly a centaur or irregular satellite candidate; was detected in August and September 2002 before being subsequently lost after failed attempts to recover the object[6]

See also


  1. The geometric albedo of an astronomical body is the ratio of its actual brightness at zero phase angle (i.e. as seen from the light source) to that of an idealized flat, fully reflecting, diffusively scattering (Lambertian) disk with the same cross-section. The Bond albedo, named after the American astronomer George Phillips Bond (1825–1865), who originally proposed it, is the fraction of power in the total electromagnetic radiation incident on an astronomical body that is scattered back out into space. The Bond albedo is a value strictly between 0 and 1, as it includes all possible scattered light (but not radiation from the body itself). This is in contrast to other definitions of albedo such as the geometric albedo, which can be above 1. In general, though, the Bond albedo may be greater or smaller than the geometric albedo, depending on surface and atmospheric properties of the body in question.
  2. Binary objects, objects with moons such as the PlutoCharon system, are quite common among the larger trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). Around 11% of all TNOs may be binaries.[32]
  3. Order refers to the position among other moons with respect to their average distance from Neptune.
  4. Label refers to the Roman numeral attributed to each moon in order of their discovery.[14]
  5. Diameters with multiple entries such as "60×40×34" reflect that the body is not spherical and that each of its dimensions has been measured well enough to provide a 3-axis estimate. The dimensions of the five inner moons were taken from Karkoschka, 2003.[23] Dimensions of Proteus are from Stooke (1994).[21] Dimensions of Triton are from Thomas, 2000,[36] whereas its diameter is taken from Davies et al., 1991.[37] The size of Nereid is from Kiss et al., 2019[38] and the sizes of the other outer moons are from Sheppard et al., 2006.[7]
  6. Mass of all moons of Neptune except Triton were calculated assuming a density of 1.3 g/cm3. The volumes of Larissa and Proteus were taken from Stooke (1994).[21] The mass of Triton is from Jacobson, 2009.
  7. Each moon's inclination is given relative to its local Laplace plane. Inclinations greater than 90° indicate retrograde orbits (in the direction opposite to the planet's rotation).


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