NASA History


French astronomer Alexis Bouvard published astronomical tables of the orbit of Uranus in 1821. This table made predictions of the future positions of the planet based on Newton’s law of motion and gravitation. However, Uranus did not follow this predicted orbit, causing Bouvard to hypothesize that there was some other body causing the perturbation. A young University of Cambridge student, John Couch Adams had become convinced of the “perturbation” theory. On July 3, 1841, he noted his intention to work on the problem. Adams was convinced that he could deduce the mass, position, and orbit of the perturbing body using just Uranus’s observed data and Newton’s law of gravitation. He began his calculations in 1843 and completed 6 iterations of the problem while tutoring undergraduates and teaching his servant how to read.

Another mathematician in France, Urbain Le Verrier, was also investigating the same problem. He made his final prediction of the position of the perturbing planet to the public on August 31, 1846, two days before Adam’s final solution was mailed to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Le Verrier sent his own observations to J.G. Galle at the Berlin Observatory. On Sept 23 of the same year, the planet Neptune was found within 1 degree of the predicted location. Controversy erupted between Britain and France as to who was first to make the prediction. However, Adams publicly acknowledged that Le Verrier deserved the honors of the discovery, because his prediction led to the actual planetary discovery by Dr. Galle.

Source: NASA History

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