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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A Migrating Moon Might Have Turned Uranus Over on its Side

There are plenty of interesting things about Uranus. Its season lasts as long as its day, it’s the second least-dense planet, and it has a collection of 27 moons. But maybe the most puzzling fact about Uranus is that it is the only planet that lines on its side – relative to its orbital plane, at least. The most common suggestion for why the planet is tilted 98 degrees on its axis is that it was struck by a series of large impacts early in the solar system’s formation. However, new studies from a team at the Sorbonne point to a potential alternative explanation – Uranus used to have another, larger moon that pulled it onto its side and then impacted the planet itself.

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Why are Uranus and Neptune Different Colors? Haze

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft captured these views of Uranus (on the left) and Neptune (on the right) during its flybys of the planets in the 1980s.

Way back in the late 1980s, the Voyager 2 spacecraft visited Uranus and Neptune. During the flybys, we got to see the first close-up views of those ice giants. Even then, planetary scientists noticed a marked color difference between the two. Yes, they both sport shades of blue. But, if you look closely at Uranus, you see a featureless pale blue planet. Neptune, on the other hand, boasts interesting clouds, dark banding, and dark spots that come and go. They’re all set against a darker blue backdrop.

So, why the difference? Planetary scientists have long suspected aerosols (droplets of gas that have liquids or dust suspended in them) in each atmosphere. But, according to a team of scientists studying the layers of the planets, the hazes those aerosols create may only be part of the story.

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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

Ö. H. Detre et al./MPIA

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

Composite image of Uranus’s atmosphere and rings at radio wavelengths, taken with the ALMA array in December 2017. The image shows thermal emission, or heat, from the rings of Uranus for the first time, enabling scientists to determine their temperature: a frigid 77 Kelvin (-320 F). Dark bands in Uranus’s atmosphere at these wavelengths show the presence of molecules that absorb radio waves, in particular hydrogen sulfide gas. Bright regions like the north polar spot (yellow spot at right, because Uranus is tipped on its side) contain very few of these molecules. (UC Berkeley image by Edward Molter and Imke de Pater)

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
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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