When Uranus and Neptune Migrated, Three Icy Objects Were Crashing Into Them Every Hour!

The giant outer planets haven’t always been in their current position. Uranus and Neptune for example are thought to have wandered through the outer Solar System to their current orbital position. On the way, they accumulated icy, comet-like objects. A new piece of research suggests as many as three kilomerer-sized objects crashed into them every hour increasing their mass. Not only would it increase the mass but it would enrich their atmospheres.

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It’s Time to Go Back to Uranus. What Questions do Scientists Have About the Ice Giants?

Image of Uranus from Webb

It seems crazy that Uranus was discovered in 1781 yet here we are, in 2024 and we have only sent one spacecraft to explore Uranus. Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have given us close-up images of Uranus (and Neptune) but since their visit in 1986, we have not returned. There have of course been great images from the Hubble Space Telescope and from the James Webb Space Telescope but we still have lots to learn about them. 

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Uranus and Neptune are Actually Pretty Much the Same Color

Scientists reprocessed Voyager 2 images to get the "true" colors of Uranus and Neptune. Turns out they're a pretty blueish-green. Courtesy NASA/Irwin, et al, Anton Pozdnyakov.
Scientists reprocessed Voyager 2 images to get the "true" colors of Uranus and Neptune. Turns out they're a pretty blueish-green. Courtesy NASA/Irwin, et al, Anton Pozdnyakov.

In the late 1980s, the Voyager 2 spacecraft snapped the “canonical” up-close images of Uranus and Neptune. In those views, Uranus was a pretty greenish-blue and Neptune appeared a deep azure color. It turns out that both planets are pretty close in color: a greenish-blue more akin to Uranus’s appearance.

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Aerocapture is a Free Lunch in Space Exploration

Visualisation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter aerobraking at Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab.

This article was updated on 11/28/23

When spacecraft return to Earth, they don’t need to shed all their velocity by firing retro-rockets. Instead, they use the atmosphere as a brake to slow down for a soft landing. Every planet in the Solar System except Mercury has enough of an atmosphere to allow aerocapture maneuvers, and could allow high-speed exploration missions. A new paper looks at the different worlds and how a spacecraft must fly to take advantage of this “free lunch” to slow down at the destination.

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We Could SCATTER CubeSats Around Uranus To Track How It Changes

Exploration missions to the outer solar system are still sorely lacking, even though they were highly prioritized in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey from 2013-2022. In fact, many planets in the outer solar system have never even been orbited by a probe. For one in particular – Uranus – we must rely on data from Voyager 2, with instruments designed over 50 years ago, or Earth-based observations. Neither solution can genuinely understand the weird physics going on with this planet that is essentially lying on its side. And while there have been plenty of proposed mission architectures to go and look at it, it’s always fun to take a look at a new one when it pops up. A team from Stanford came up with a new concept called the Sustained CubeSat Activity Through Transmitter Electromagnetic Radiation (SCATTER). It was given a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts grant to develop the idea further. They released a paper a little while ago, and it’s worth digging into here.

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There's a Polar Cyclone on Uranus' North Pole

NASA scientists used microwave observations to spot the first polar cyclone on Uranus, seen here as a light-colored dot to the right of center in each image of the planet. The images use wavelength bands K, Ka, and Q, from left. To highlight cyclone features, a different color map was used for each. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/VLA.

Uranus takes 84 years to orbit the Sun, and so that last time that planet’s north polar region was pointed at Earth, radio telescope technology was in its infancy.

But now, scientists have been using radio telescopes like the Very Large Array (VLA) the past few years as Uranus has slowly revealing more and more of its north pole. VLA microwave observations from 2021 and 2022 show a giant cyclone swirling around this region, with a bright, compact spot centered at Uranus’ pole. Data also reveals patterns in temperature, zonal wind speed and trace gas variations consistent with a polar cyclone.

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Four of Uranus’ Moons Might Have Liquid Oceans, Too

Recent computer models estimate the likelihood of interior oceans in four of Uranus’ major moons: Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon, but Miranda is likely too small to sustain enough heat for an interior ocean. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The study of ocean worlds, planetary bodies with potential interior reservoirs of liquid water, has come to the forefront in terms of astrobiology and the search for life beyond Earth. From Jupiter’s Galilean Moons to Saturn’s Titan and Mimas to Neptune’s Triton and even Pluto, scientists are craving to better understand if these worlds truly possess interior bodies of liquid water. But what about Uranus and its more than two dozen moons? Could they harbor interior oceans, as well?

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The Rings of Uranus Shine Bright in Stunning New JWST Image

This zoomed-in image of Uranus, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) Feb. 6, 2023, reveals stunning views of the planet’s rings. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI IMAGE PROCESSING: Joseph DePasquale (STScI).

The James Webb Space Telescope has taken a stunning new image of the ice giant world Uranus. But what stands out most is the dramatic new view of the planet’s rings, which show up as never before with JWST’s infrared eyes.

Instead of being faint and wispy, the rings show up brilliantly. Additionally, bright, luminous features in the planet’s atmosphere show how an extensive storm system at the north pole of this planet getting larger and brighter.

But you’ll also want to see the full-frame image view, which also shows the six largest of Uranus’ 27 known moons. And, as we’ve become accustomed to seeing in JWST images, several distant background galaxies. Yes, every JWST image is a Deep Field!

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It's Time For Your Annual Weather Update for the Outer Solar System

Jupiter, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in November 2022 and January 2023. Credits: NASA, ESA, STScI, Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), and Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley); Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI).

A couple times a year, the Hubble Space Telescope turns its powerful gaze on the giant planets in the outer Solar System, studying their cloudtops and weather systems. With the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) Program, Hubble provides us with these views and also delivers weather reports on what’s happening. Here’s an updated report and some new images of the stormy surfaces of Jupiter and Uranus.  

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