Giant Balls of Mush Made From Ammonia and Water Form in the Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune

One advantage to planetary science is that insights from one planet could explain phenomena on another.  We understand Venus’ greenhouse gas effect from our own experience on the Earth, and Jupiter and Saturn share some characteristics.  But Jupiter also provides insight into other, farther out systems, such as Uranus and Neptune.  Now, a discovery from a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter might have solved a long-standing mystery about Uranus and Neptune – where has all the ammonia gone?

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What Mission Could Detect Oceans at Uranus’ Moons?

Exploration of ocean worlds has become a hot topic of late, primarily due to their role as a potential harbor for alien life.  Moons that have confirmed subsurface oceans garner much of the attention, such as Enceladus and Europa.  But they may not be the only ones.  Uranus’ larger moonsMiranda, Ariel, and Umbriel could potentially also have subsurface oceans even farther out into the solar system.  We just haven’t sent any instruments close enough to be able to check.  Now a team led by Dr. Corey Cochrane at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory has done some preliminary work to show that a relatively simple flyby of the Uranian system with an averagely sensitive magnetometer could provide the data needed to determine if those larger moons harbor subsurface oceans.  This work is another step down the path of expanding what we think of as habitable environments in the solar system.

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Uranus X-Rays are Probably Reflected Sunlight, but There Could be Another Source as Well

X-rays offer a unique insight into the astronomical world.  Invisible to the naked eye, most commonly they are thought of as the semi-dangerous source of medical scans.  However, X-ray observatories, like the Chandra X-ray Observatory are capable of seeing astronomical features that no other telescope can.  Recently scientists found some of those X-rays coming from a relatively unexpected source – Uranus.

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Uranus’ Moons are Surprisingly Similar to Dwarf Planets in the Kuiper Belt

Astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus—and two of its moons—230 years ago. Now a group of astronomers working with data from the telescope that bears his name, the Herschel Space Observatory, have made an unexpected discovery. It looks like Uranus’ moons bear a striking similarity to icy dwarf planets.

The Herschel Space Observatory has been retired since 2013. But all of its data is still of interest to researchers. This discovery was a happy accident, resulting from tests on data from the observatory’s camera detector. Uranus is a very bright infrared energy source, and the team was measuring the influence of very bright infrared objects on the camera.

The images of the moons were discovered by accident.

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The Moons of Uranus Are Fascinating Enough On Their Own That We Should Send a Flagship Mission Out There

What’s the most interesting fact you know about Uranus? The fact that its rotational axis is completely out of line with every other planet in the solar system?  Or the fact that Uranus’ magnetosphere is asymmetrical, notably tilted relative to its rotational axis, and significantly offset from the center of the planet?  Or the fact that it’s moons are all named after characters from Shakespeare or Alexander Pope?

All of those facts (with the exception of the literary references) have come from a very limited dataset. Some of the best data was collected during a Voyager 2 flyby in 1986. Since then, the only new data has come from Earth-based telescopes.  While they’ve been steadily increasing in resolution, they have only been able to scratch the surface of what may be lurking in the system surrounding the closest Ice Giant.  Hopefully that is about to change, as a team of scientists has published a white paper advocating for a visit from a new Flagship class spacecraft.

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Uranus’ Rings are Surprisingly Bright in Thermal Emissions

During the late 1970s, scientists made a rather interesting discovery about the gas giants of the Solar System. Thanks to ongoing observations using improved optics, it was revealed that gas giants like Uranus – and not just Saturn – have ring systems about them. The main difference is, these ring systems are not easily visible from a distance using conventional optics and require exceptional timing to see light being reflected off of them.

Another way to study them is to observe their planet in infrared or radio wavelengths. This was recently demonstrated by a team of astronomers who conducted observations of Uranus using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT). In addition to obtaining temperature readings from the rings, they confirmed what many scientists have suspected about them for some time.

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Something Twice the Size of Earth Slammed into Uranus and Knocked it Over on its Side

Between 3 to 4 billion years ago, a body twice the size of Earth impacted Uranus, knocking the ice giant onto its side. Image Credit: Jacob A. Kegerreis/Durham University

Astronomers think they know how Uranus got flipped onto its side. According to detailed computer simulations, a body about twice the size of Earth slammed into Uranus between 3 to 4 billion years ago. The impact created an oddity in our Solar System: the only planet that rotates on its side.

A study explaining these findings was presented at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting in Washington DC held between December 10th to 14th. It’s led by Jacob Kegerreis, a researcher at Durham University. It builds on previous studies pointing to an impact as the cause of Uranus’ unique orientation. Taken altogether, we’re getting a clearer picture of why Uranus rotates on its side compared to the other planets in our Solar System. The impact also explains why Uranus is unique in other ways.
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Exploring the Ice Giants: Neptune and Uranus at Opposition for 2018

The existence of Neptune was inferred by its gravitational effect on other bodies long before it was ever observed. Image Credi: NASA/JPL

Have you seen the outer ice giant planets for yourself?

This week is a good time to check the most difficult of the major planets off of your life list, as Neptune reaches opposition for 2018 on Friday, September 7th at at ~18:00 Universal Time (UT)/2:00 PM EDT. And while it may not look like much more than a gray-blue dot at the eyepiece, the outermost ice giant world has a fascinating tale to tell. Continue reading “Exploring the Ice Giants: Neptune and Uranus at Opposition for 2018”

New Insights Into What Might Have Smashed Uranus Over Onto its Side

Uranus

The gas/ice giant Uranus has long been a source of mystery to astronomers. In addition to presenting some thermal anomalies and a magnetic field that is off-center, the planet is also unique in that it is the only one in the Solar System to rotate on its side. With an axial tilt of 98°, the planet experiences radical seasons and a day-night cycle at the poles where a single day and night last 42 years each.

Thanks to a new study led by researchers from Durham University, the reason for these mysteries may finally have been found. With the help of NASA researchers and multiple scientific organizations, the team conducted simulations that indicated how Uranus may have suffered a massive impact in its past. Not only would this account for the planet’s extreme tilt and magnetic field, it would also explain why the planet’s outer atmosphere is so cold.

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Who Discovered Uranus?

If you’ve got really good eyesight and can find a place where the light pollution is non-existent, you might be able to see Uranus without a telescope. It’s only possible with the right conditions, and if you know exactly where to look. And for thousands of years, scholars and astronomers were doing just that. But given that it was just a tiny pinprick of light, they believed Uranus was a star.

It was not until the late 18th century that the first recorded observation that recognized Uranus as being a planet took place. This occurred on March 13th, 1781, when British astronomer Sir William Herschel observed the planet using a telescope of his own creation. From this point onwards, Uranus would be recognized as the seventh planet and the third gas giant of the Solar System.

Observations pre-18th Century:

The first recorded instance of Uranus being spotted in the night sky is believed to date back to Classical Antiquity.  During the 2nd century BCE, Hipparchos – the Greek astronomer, mathematician and founder of trigonometry – apparently recorded the planet as a star in his star catalogue (completed in 129 BCE).

William Herschel’s telescope, through which the planet Uranus was first observed. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This catalog was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest, which became the definitive source for Islamic astronomers and for scholars in Medieval Europe for over one-thousand years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, multiple recorded sightings were made by astronomers who also catalogued it as being a star.

This included English astronomer John Flamsteed, who in 1690 observed the star on six occasions and catalogued it as a star in the Taurus constellation (34 Tauri). During the mid-18th century, French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier made twelve recorded sightings, and also recorded it as being a star. It was not until March 13th, 1781, when William Herschel observed it from his garden house in Bath, that Uranus’ true nature began to be revealed.

Hershel’s Discovery:

On the evening in question –  March 13th, 1781 – William Herschel was surveying the sky with his telescope, looking for binary stars. His first report on the object was recorded on April 26th, 1781. Initially, he described it as being a “Nebulous star or perhaps a comet”, but later settled on it being a comet since it appeared to have changed its position in the sky.

Portrait of Sir William Herschel, by Lewis Francis Abbot (1784). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/National Portrait Gallery

When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he maintained this theory, but also likened it to a planet. As was recorded in the Journal of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society on the occasion of his presentation:

“The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.”

While Herschel would continue to maintain that what he observed was a comet, his “discovery” stimulated debate in the astronomical community about what Uranus was. In time, astronomers like Johann Elert Bode would conclude that it was a planet, based on its nearly-circular orbit. By 1783, Herschel himself acknowledged that it was a planet to the Royal Society.

Naming:

As he lived in England, Herschel originally wanted to name Uranus after his patron, King George III. Specifically, he wanted to call it Georgium Sidus (Latin for “George’s Star”), or the Georgian Planet. Although this was a popular name in Britain, the international astronomy community didn’t think much of it, and wanted to follow the historical precedent of naming the planets after ancient Greek and Roman gods.

Large floor mosaic from a Roman villa in Sassoferrato, Italy (ca. 200–250 CE). Aion (Uranus), the god of eternity, stands above Tellus (Gaia) and her four children (the seasons). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Bibi Saint-Poi

Consistent with this, Bode proposed the name Uranus in a 1782 treatise. The Latin form of Ouranos, Uranus was the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon), the father of Cronos (Saturn), and the king of the Titans in Greek mythology. As it was discovered beyond the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, the name seemed highly appropriate.

In the following century, Neptune would be discovered, the last of the eight official planets that are currently recognized by the IAU. And by the 20th century, astronomers would discovery Pluto and other minor planets within the Kuiper Belt. The process of discovery has been ongoing, and will likely continue for some time to come.

We have written many articles about planetary discovery here at Universe Today. Here’s Who Discovered Mercury?, Who Discovered Venus?, Who Discovered Earth?, Who Discovered Mars?, Who Discovered Jupiter?, Who Discovered Saturn?, Who Discovered Neptune?, and Who Discovered Pluto?

Here’s an article from the Hubble educational site about the discovery of Uranus, and here’s the NASA Solar System Exploration page on Uranus.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast just about Uranus. You can access it here: Episode 62: Uranus.

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