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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Astronomers See the Afterglow Where Two Ice Giant Planets Collided

This artist's illustration is a visualization of the huge, glowing planetary body produced by a planetary collision. In the foreground, fragments of ice and rock fly away from the collision and will later cross in between Earth and the host star which is seen in the background of the image. Image Credit: Mark Garlick

What would happen if two giant planets collided? It would be terrifying to behold if it happened in our Solar System. Imagine if Neptune and Uranus slammed into each other. Picture the chaos as a new super-heated object took their places, and clouds of debris blocked out the Sun. Think of the monumental destruction as objects are sent careening into each other.

Astronomers spotted the aftermath of a gigantic planetary collision like this in a distant solar system. From a safe distance, they were surprised and intrigued rather than terrified. Now, they intend to keep watching as the aftermath unfolds.

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Will We Ever Go Back to Explore the Ice Giants? Yes, If We Keep the Missions Simple and Affordable

Uranus and Neptune are begging to be visited, but expensive missions to visit them may never be approved. Image Credits: (L) By NASA – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18182, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121128532. (R) By Justin Cowart – https://www.flickr.com/photos/132160802@N06/29347980845/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82476611

It’s been over 35 years since a spacecraft visited Uranus and Neptune. That was Voyager 2, and it only did flybys. Will we ever go back? There are discoveries waiting to be made on these fascinating ice giants and their moons.

But complex missions to Mars and the Moon are eating up budgets and shoving other endeavours aside.

A new paper shows how we can send spacecraft to Uranus and Neptune cheaply and quickly without cutting into Martian and Lunar missions.

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Both Uranus and Neptune Have Really Bizarre Magnetic Fields

These composite images show Uranian auroras, which scientists caught glimpses of through the Hubble in 2011. In the left image, you can clearly see how the aurora stands high above the planet's denser atmosphere. These photos combine Hubble pictures made in UV and visible light by Hubble with photos of Uranus' disk from the Voyager 2 and a third image of the rings from the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and Chile. The auroras are located close to the planet's north magnetic pole, making these northern lights. Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Lamy (Observatory of Paris, CNRS, CNES)

The magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune are really, seriously messed up. And we don’t know why.

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NASA Thinks it’s Time to Return to Neptune With its Trident Mission

Artist's impression of what the surface of Triton may look like. Credit: ESO

Is it time to head back to Neptune and its moon Triton? It might be. After all, we have some unfinished business there.

It’s been 30 years since NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past the gas giant and its largest moon, and that flyby posed more questions than it answered. Maybe we’ll get some answers in 2038, when the positions of Jupiter, Neptune, and Triton will be just right for a mission.

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

A new study indicates that a massive impact may be why Uranus orbits on its side. Credit: NASA/JPL/Voyager mission

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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Hallelujah, It’s Raining Diamonds! Just like the Insides of Uranus and Neptune.

An experiment conducted by an international team of scientists recreated the "diamond rain" believed to exist in the interiors of ice giants like Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

For more than three decades, the internal structure and evolution of Uranus and Neptune has been a subject of debate among scientists. Given their distance from Earth and the fact that only a few robotic spacecraft have studied them directly, what goes on inside these ice giants is still something of a mystery. In lieu of direct evidence, scientists have relied on models and experiments to replicate the conditions in their interiors.

For instance, it has been theorized that within Uranus and Neptune, the extreme pressure conditions squeeze hydrogen and carbon into diamonds, which then sink down into the interior. Thanks to an experiment conducted by an international team of scientists, this “diamond rain” was recreated under laboratory conditions for the first time, giving us the first glimpse into what things could be like inside ice giants.

The study which details this experiment, titled “Formation of Diamonds in Laser-Compressed Hydrocarbons at Planetary Interior Conditions“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. Led by Dr. Dominik Kraus, a physicist from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf Institute of Radiation Physics, the team included members from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC Berkeley.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

For decades, scientists have held that the interiors of planets like Uranus and Neptune consist of solid cores surrounded by a dense concentrations of “ices”. In this case, ice refers to hydrogen molecules connected to lighter elements (i.e. as carbon, oxygen and/or nitrogen) to create compounds like water and ammonia. Under extreme pressure conditions, these compounds become semi-solid, forming “slush”.

And at roughly 10,000 kilometers (6214 mi) beneath the surface of these planets, the compression of hydrocarbons is thought to create diamonds. To recreate these conditions, the international team subjected a sample of polystyrene plastic to two shock waves using an intense optical laser at the Matter in Extreme Conditions (MEC) instrument, which they then paired with x-ray pulses from the SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS).

As Dr. Kraus, the head of a Helmholtz Young Investigator Group at HZDR, explained in an HZDR press release:

“So far, no one has been able to directly observe these sparkling showers in an experimental setting. In our experiment, we exposed a special kind of plastic – polystyrene, which also consists of a mix of carbon and hydrogen – to conditions similar to those inside Neptune or Uranus.”

The plastic in this experiment simulated compounds formed from methane, a molecule that consists of one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms. It is the presence of this compound that gives both Uranus and Neptune their distinct blue coloring. In the intermediate layers of these planets, it also forms hydrocarbon chains that are compressed into diamonds that could be millions of karats in weight.

The MEC hutch of SLAC’s LCLS Far Experiement Hall. Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The optical laser the team employed created two shock waves which accurately simulated the temperature and pressure conditions at the intermediate layers of Uranus and Neptune. The first shock was smaller and slower, and was then overtaken by the stronger second shock. When they overlapped, the pressure peaked and tiny diamonds began to form. At this point, the team probed the reactions with x-ray pulses from the LCLS.

This technique, known as x-ray diffraction, allowed the team to see the small diamonds form in real-time, which was necessary since a reaction of this kind can only last for fractions of a second. As Siegfried Glenzer, a professor of photon science at SLAC and a co-author of the paper, explained:

“For this experiment, we had LCLS, the brightest X-ray source in the world. You need these intense, fast pulses of X-rays to unambiguously see the structure of these diamonds, because they are only formed in the laboratory for such a very short time.”

In the end, the research team found that nearly every carbon atom in the original plastic sample was incorporated into small diamond structures. While they measured just a few nanometers in diameter, the team predicts that on Uranus and Neptune, the diamonds would be much larger. Over time, they speculate that these could sink into the planets’ atmospheres and form a layer of diamond around the core.

The interior structure of Neptune. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

In previous studies, attempts to recreate the conditions in Uranus and Neptune’s interior met with limited success. While they showed results that indicated the formation of graphite and diamonds, the teams conducting them could not capture the measurements in real-time. As noted, the extreme temperatures and pressures that exist within gas/ice giants can only be simulated in a laboratory for very short periods of time.

However, thanks to LCLS – which creates X-ray pulses a billion times brighter than previous instruments and fires them at a rate of about 120 pulses per second (each one lasting just quadrillionths of a second) – the science team was able to directly measure the chemical reaction for the first time. In the end, these results are of particular significance to planetary scientists who specialize in the study of how planets form and evolve.

As Kraus explained, it could cause to rethink the relationship between a planet’s mass and its radius, and lead to new models of planet classification:

“With planets, the relationship between mass and radius can tell scientists quite a bit about the chemistry. And the chemistry that happens in the interior can provide additional information about some of the defining features of the planet… We can’t go inside the planets and look at them, so these laboratory experiments complement satellite and telescope observations.”

This experiment also opens new possibilities for matter compression and the creation of synthetic materials. Nanodiamonds currently have many commercial applications – i.e. medicine, electronics, scientific equipment, etc, – and creating them with lasers would be far more cost-effective and safe than current methods (which involve explosives).

Fusion research, which also relies on creating extreme pressure and temperature conditions to generate abundant energy, could also benefit from this experiment. On top of that, the results of this study offer a tantalizing hint at what the cores of massive planets look like. In addition to being composed of silicate rock and metals, ice giants may also have a diamond layer at their core-mantle boundary.

Assuming we can create probes of sufficiently strong super-materials someday, wouldn’t that be worth looking into?

Further Reading: SLAC, HZDR, Nature Astronomy


The Orbit of Uranus. How Long is a Year on Uranus?

Uranus as seen by NASA's Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL

Uranus is a most unusual planet. Aside from being the seventh planet of our Solar System and the third gas giant, it is also classified sometimes as an “ice giant” (along with Neptune). This is because of its peculiar chemical composition, where water and other volatiles (i.e. ammonia, methane, and other hydrocarbons) in its atmosphere are compressed to the point where they become solid.

In addition to that, it also has a very long orbital period. Basically, it takes Uranus a little over 84 Earth years to complete a single orbit of the Sun. What this means is that a single year on Uranus lasts almost as long as a century here on Earth. On top of that, because of it axial tilt, the planet also experiences extremes of night and day during the course of a year, and some pretty interesting seasonal changes.

Orbital Period:

Uranus orbits the Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 2.875 billion km (1.786 billion mi), ranging from 2.742 billion km (1.7 mi) at perihelion to 3 billion km (1.86 billion mi) at aphelion. Another way to look at it would be to say that it orbits the Sun at an average distance of 19.2184 AU (over 19 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun), and ranges from 18.33 AU to 20.11 AU.

Images of Uranus taken over a four year period using the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

The difference between its minimum and maximum distance from the Sun is 269.3 million km (167.335 mi) or 1.8 AU, which is the most pronounced of any of the Solar Planets (with the possible exception of Pluto). And with an average orbital speed of 6.8 km/s (4.225 mi/s), Uranus has an orbital period equivalent to 84.0205 Earth years. This means that a single year on Uranus lasts as long as 30,688.5 Earth days.

However, since it takes 17 hours 14 minutes 24 seconds for Uranus to rotate once on its axis (a sidereal day). And because of its immense distance from the Sun, a single solar day on Uranus is about the same. This means that a single year on Uranus lasts 42,718 Uranian solar days. And like Venus, Uranus’ rotates in the direction opposite of its orbit around the Sun (a phenomena known as retrograde rotation).

Axial Tilt:

Another interesting thing about Uranus is the extreme inclination of its axis (97.7°). Whereas all of the Solar Planets are tilted on their axes to some degree, Uranus’s extreme tilt means that the planet’s axis of rotation is approximately parallel with the plane of the Solar System. The reason for this is unknown, but it has been theorized that during the formation of the Solar System, an Earth-sized protoplanet collided with Uranus and tilted it onto its side.

A consequence of this is that when Uranus is nearing its solstice, one pole faces the Sun continuously while the other faces away – leading to a very unusual day-night cycle across the planet. At the poles, one will experience 42 Earth years of day followed by 42 years of night.

This is similar to what is experienced in the Arctic Circle and Antarctica. During the winter season near the poles, a single night will last for more than 24 hours (aka. a “Polar Night”) while during the summer, a single day will last longer than 24 hours (a “Polar Day”, or “Midnight Sun”).

Meanwhile, near the time of the equinoxes, the Sun faces Uranus’ equator and gives it a period of day-night cycles that are similar to those seen on most of the other planets. Uranus reached its most recent equinox on December 7th, 2007. During the Voyager 2 probe’s historic flyby in 1986, Uranus’s south pole was pointed almost directly at the Sun.

Seasonal Change:

Uranus’ long orbital period and extreme axial tilt also lead to some extreme seasonal variations in terms of its weather. Determining the full extent of these changes is difficult because astronomers have yet to observe Uranus for a full Uranian year. However, data obtained from the mid-20th century onward has showed regular changes in terms of brightness, temperature and microwave radiation between the solstices and equinoxes.

These changes are believed to be related to visibility in the atmosphere, where the sunlit hemisphere is thought to experience a local thickening of methane clouds which produce strong hazes. Increases in cloud formation have also been observed, with very bright cloud features being spotted in 1999, 2004, and 2005. Changes in wind speed have also been noted that appeared to be related to seasonal increases in temperature.

Uranus Dark Spot
Close up of Uranus Dark Spot, taken by the Hubble Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

Uranus’ “Great Dark Spot” and its smaller dark spot are also thought to be related to seasonal changes. Much like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this feature is a giant cloud vortex that is created by winds – which in this case are estimated to reach speeds of up to 900 km/h (560 mph). In 2006, researchers at the Space Science Institute and the University of Wisconsin observed a storm that measured 1,700 by 3,000 kilometers (1,100 miles by 1,900 miles).

Interestingly enough, while Uranus’ polar regions receive more energy on average over the course of a year than the equatorial regions, the equatorial regions have been found to be hotter than the poles. The exact cause of this remains unknown, but is certainly believed to be due to something endogenic.

Yep, Uranus is a pretty weird place! On this planet, a single year lasts almost a century, and the seasons are characterized by extreme versions of Polar Nights and Midnight Suns. And of course, an average year brings all kinds of seasonal changes, complete with extreme winds, massive storms, and thickening methane clouds.

We have written many articles about the length of a year on other planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, How Long is a Year on Mercury?, How Long is a Year on Venus?, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Mars?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Neptune? and How Long is a Year on Pluto?

If you’d like more info on Uranus, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Uranus. And here’s a link to the NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Uranus.

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


Uranus & Neptune May Keep “Hitler’s Acid” Stable Under Massive Pressure

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

“Hitler’s acid” is a colloquial name used to refer to Orthocarbonic acid – a name which was inspired from the fact that the molecule’s appearance resembles a swastika. As chemical compounds go, it is quite exotic, and chemists are still not sure how to create it under laboratory conditions.

But it just so happens that this acid could exist in the interiors of planets like Uranus and Neptune. According to a recent study from a team of Russian chemists, the conditions inside Uranus and Neptune could be ideal for creating exotic molecular and polymeric compounds, and keeping them under stable conditions.

The study was produced by researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). Titled “Novel Stable Compounds in the C-H-O Ternary System at High Pressure”, the paper describes how the high pressure environments inside planets could create compounds that exist nowhere else in the Solar System.

Orthocarbonic acid (also known as Hitler's acid). Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
Orthocarbonic acid (also known as Hitler’s acid). Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

Professor Artem Oganov – a professor at Skoltech and the head of MIPT’s Computational Materials Discovery Lab – is the study’s lead author. Years back, he and a team of researchers developed the worlds most powerful algorithm for predicting the formation of crystal structures and chemical compounds under extreme conditions.

Known as the Universal Structure Predictor: Evolutionary Xtallography (UPSEX), scientists have since used this algorithm to predict the existence of substances that are considered impossible in classical chemistry, but which could exist where pressures and temperatures are high enough – i.e. the interior of a planet.

With the help of Gabriele Saleh, a postdoc member of MIPT and the co-author of the paper, the two decided to use the algorithm to study how the carbon-hydrogen-oxygen system would behave under high pressure. These elements are plentiful in our Solar System, and are the basis of organic chemistry.

Until now, it has not been clear how these elements behave when subjected to extremes of temperature and pressure. What they found was that under these types of extreme conditions, which are the norm inside gas giants, these elements form some truly exotic compounds.

The interior structure of Uranus. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
Diagram of the interior structure of Uranus. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

As Prof. Oganov explained in a MIPT press release:

“The smaller gas giants – Uranus and Neptune – consist largely of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. We have found that at a pressure of several million atmospheres unexpected compounds should form in their interiors. The cores of these planets may largely consist of these exotic materials.”

Under normal pressure – i.e. what we experience here on Earth (100 kPa) – any carbon, hydrogen or oxygen compounds (with the exception of methane, water and CO²) are unstable. But at pressures in the range 1 to 400 GPa (10,000 to 4 million times Earth normal), they become stable enough to form several new substances.

These include carbonic  acid, orthocarbonic acid (Hitler’s acid) and other rare compounds. This was a very unusual find, considering that these chemicals are unstable under normal pressure conditions. In carbonic acid’s case, it can only remain stable when kept at very low temperatures in a vacuum.

 The interior structure of Neptune. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
Diagram of the interior structure of Neptune. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

At pressures of 314 GPa, they determined that carbonic acid (H²CO³) would react with water to form orthocarbonic acid (H4CO4). This acid is also extremely unstable, and so far, scientists have not yet been able to produce it in a laboratory environment.

This research is of considerable importance when it comes to modelling the interior of planets like Uranus and Neptune. Like all gas giants, the structure and composition of their interiors have remained the subject of speculation due to their inaccessible nature. But it could also have implications in the search for life beyond Earth.

According to Oganov and Saleh, the interiors of many moons that orbit gas giants (like Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus) also experience these types of pressure conditions. Knowing that these kinds of exotic compounds could exist in their interiors is likely to change what scientist’s think is going on under their icy surfaces.

“It was previously thought that the oceans in these satellites are in direct contact with the rocky core and a chemical reaction took place between them,” said Oganov. “Our study shows that the core should be ‘wrapped’ in a layer of crystallized carbonic acid, which means that a reaction between the core and the ocean would be impossible.”

Europa's cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
Europa’s cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI

For some time, scientists have understood that at high temperatures and pressures, the properties of matter change pretty drastically. And while here on Earth, atmospheric pressure and temperatures are quite stable (just the way we like them!), the situation in the outer Solar System is much different.

By modelling what can occur under these conditions, and knowing what chemical buildings blocks are involved, we could be able to determine with a fair degree of confidence what the interior’s of inaccessible bodies are like. This will give us something to work with when the day comes (hopefully soon) that we can investigate them directly.

Who knows? In the coming years, a mission to Europa may find that the core-mantle boundary is not a habitable environment after all. Rather than a watery environment kept warm by hydrothermal activity, it might instead by a thick layer of chemical soup.

Then again, we may find that the interaction of these chemicals with geothermal energy could produce organic life that is even more exotic!

Further Reading: MIPT, Nature Scientific Reports

What are the Jovian Planets?

The Jovian planets of the Solar System. Credit: bork.hampshire.edu

Beyond our Solar System’s “Frost Line” – the region where volatiles like water, ammonia and methane begin to freeze – four massive planets reside. Though these planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – vary in terms of size, mass, and composition, they all share certain characteristics that cause them to differ greatly from the terrestrial planets located in the inner Solar System.

Officially designated as gas (and/or ice) giants, these worlds also go by the name of “Jovian planets”. Used interchangeably with terms like gas giant and giant planet, the name describes worlds that are essentially “Jupiter-like”. And while the Solar System contains four such planets, extra-solar surveys have discovered hundreds of Jovian planets, and that’s just so far…


The term Jovian is derived from Jupiter, the largest of the Outer Planets and the first to be observed using a telescope  – by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Taking its name from the Roman king of the gods – Jupiter, or Jove – the adjective Jovian has come to mean anything associated with Jupiter; and by extension, a Jupiter-like planet.

The giant planets of the Solar System (aka. Jovians). Credit: spiff.rit.edu
The giant planets of the Solar System (aka. the Jovians). Credit: spiff.rit.edu

Within the Solar System, four Jovian planets exist – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. A planet designated as Jovian is hence a gas giant, composed primarily of hydrogen and helium gas with varying degrees of heavier elements. In addition to having large systems of moons, these planets each have their own ring systems as well.

Another common feature of gas giants is their lack of a surface, at least when compared to terrestrial planets. In all cases, scientists define the “surface” of a gas giant (for the sake of defining temperatures and air pressure) as being the region where the atmospheric pressure exceeds one bar (the pressure found on Earth at sea level).

Structure and Composition:

In all cases, the gas giants of our Solar System are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium with the remainder being taken up by heavier elements. These elements correspond to a structure that is differentiated between an outer layer of molecular hydrogen and helium that surrounds a layer of liquid (or metallic) hydrogen or volatile elements, and a probable molten core with a rocky composition.

Due to difference in their structure and composition, the four gas giants are often differentiated, with Jupiter and Saturn being classified as “gas giants” while Uranus and Neptune are “ice giants”. This is due to the fact that Neptune and Uranus have higher concentrations of methane and heavier elements  – like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur – in their interior.

These cut-aways illustrate interior models of the giant planets. Jupiter is shown with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of metallic hydrogen. Credit: NASA/JPL
Interior models of the giant planets, showing rocky cores overlaid by solid and gaseous envelopes. Credit: NASA/JPL

In stark contrast to the terrestrial planets, the density of the gas giants is slightly greater than that of water (1 g/cm³). The one exception to this is Saturn, where the mean density is actually lower than water (0.687 g/cm3). In all cases, temperature and pressure increase dramatically the closer one ventures into the core.

Atmospheric Conditions:

Much like their structures and compositions, the atmospheres and weather patterns of the four gas/ice giants are quite similar. The primary difference is that the atmospheres get progressively cooler the farther away they are from Sun. As a result, each Jovian planet has distinct cloud layers who’s altitudes are determined by their temperatures, such that the gases can condense into liquid and solid states.

In short, since Saturn is colder than Jupiter at any particular altitude, its cloud layers occur deeper within it’s atmosphere. Uranus and Neptune, due to their even lower temperatures, are able to hold condensed methane in their very cold tropospheres, whereas Jupiter and Saturn cannot.

The presence of this methane is what gives Uranus and Neptune their hazy blue color, where Jupiter is orange-white in appearance due to the intermingling of hydrogen (which gives off a red appearance), while the upwelling of phosphorus, sulfur, and hydrocarbons yield spotted patches areas and ammonia crystals create white bands.

Shortly after forming, Jupiter was slowly pulled toward the sun. Saturn was also pulled in and eventually, their fates became linked. When Jupiter was about where Mars is now, the pair turned and moved away from the sun. Scientists have referred to this as the "Grand Tack," a reference to the sailing maneuver. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Jupiter and Saturn have similar appearances, owing to their similar compositions and atmospheres. Credit: NASA/GSFC

The atmosphere of Jupiter is classified into four layers based on increasing altitude: the troposphere, stratosphere, thermosphere and exosphere. Temperature and pressure increase with depth, which leads to rising convection cells emerging that carry with them the phosphorus, sulfur, and hydrocarbons that interact with UV radiation to give the upper atmosphere its spotted appearance.

Saturn’s atmosphere is similar in composition to Jupiter’s. Hence why it is similarly colored, though its bands are much fainter and are much wider near the equator (resulting in a pale gold color). As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. Both planets also have clouds composed of ammonia crystals in their upper atmospheres, with a possible thin layer of water clouds underlying them.

Uranus’ atmosphere can be divided into three sections – the innermost stratosphere, the troposphere, and the outer thermosphere. The troposphere is the densest layer, and also happens to be the coldest in the solar system. Within the troposphere are layers of clouds, with methane clouds on top, ammonium hydrosulfide clouds, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide clouds, and water clouds at the lowest pressures.

Next is the stratosphere, which contains ethane smog, acetylene and methane, and these hazes help warm this layer of the atmosphere. Here, temperatures increase considerably, largely due to solar radiation. The outermost layer (the thermosphere and corona) has a uniform temperature of 800-850 (577 °C/1,070 °F), though scientists are unsure as to the reason.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. (Images from Wikipedia.)
Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This is something that Uranus shares with Neptune, which also experiences unusually high temperatures in its thermosphere (about 750 K (476.85 °C/890 °F). Like Uranus, Neptune is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated through the absorption of ultraviolet radiation, which means another heating mechanism is involved.

Neptune’s atmosphere is also predominantly hydrogen and helium, with a small amount of methane. The presence of methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune’s is darker and more vivid. Its atmosphere can be subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere (where temperatures decrease with altitude), and the stratosphere (where temperatures increase with altitude).

The lower stratosphere is believed to contain hydrocarbons like ethane and ethyne, which are the result of methane interacting with UV radiation, thus producing Neptune’s atmospheric haze. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which are responsible for Neptune’s stratosphere being warmer than that of Uranus.

Weather Patterns:

Like Earth, Jupiter experiences auroras near its northern and southern poles. But on Jupiter, the auroral activity is much more intense and rarely ever stops. These are the result of Jupiter’s intense radiation, it’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere.

Reprocessed view by Bjorn Jonsson of the Great Red Spot taken by Voyager 1 in 1979 reveals an incredible wealth of detail.
Reprocessed view by Bjorn Jonsson of the Great Red Spot taken by Voyager 1 in 1979 reveals an incredible wealth of detail. Credit: NASA/JPL

Jupiter also experiences violent weather patterns. Wind speeds of 100 m/s (360 km/h) are common in zonal jets, and can reach as high as 620 kph (385 mph). Storms form within hours and can become thousands of km in diameter overnight. One storm, the Great Red Spot, has been raging since at least the late 1600s.

The storm has been shrinking and expanding throughout its history; but in 2012, it was suggested that the Giant Red Spot might eventually disappear. Jupiter also periodically experiences flashes of lightning in its atmosphere, which can be up to a thousand times as powerful as those observed here on the Earth.

Saturn’s atmosphere is similar, exhibiting long-lived ovals now and then that can be several thousands of kilometers wide. A good example is the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval), a unique but short-lived phenomenon that occurs once every 30 Earth years. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, and is believed to be followed by another in 2020.

The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, which have reached a measured high of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a persisting hexagonal wave pattern measuring about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) and rotating with a period of 10h 39m 24s.

Saturn makes a beautifully striped ornament in this natural-color image, showing its north polar hexagon and central vortex (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Saturn makes a beautifully striped ornament in this natural-color image, showing its north polar hexagon and central vortex. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The south pole vortex apparently takes the form of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years. In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter.

Uranus’s weather follows a similar pattern where systems are broken up into bands that rotate around the planet, which are driven by internal heat rising to the upper atmosphere. Winds on Uranus can reach up to 900 km/h (560 mph), creating massive storms like the one spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this “Dark Spot” was a giant cloud vortex that measured 1,700 kilometers by 3,000 kilometers (1,100 miles by 1,900 miles).

Because Neptune is not a solid body, its atmosphere undergoes differential rotation, with its wide equatorial zone rotating slower than the planet’s magnetic field (18 hours vs. 16.1 hours). By contrast, the reverse is true for the polar regions where the rotation period is 12 hours. This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and results in strong latitudinal wind shear and violent storms.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL
Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Dar Spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Dark Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

The first to be spotted was a massive anticyclonic storm measuring 13,000 x 6,600 km and resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Known as the Great Dark Spot, this storm was not spotted five later (Nov. 2nd, 1994) when the Hubble Space Telescope looked for it. Instead, a new storm that was very similar in appearance was found in the planet’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms have a shorter life span than Jupiter’s.


Due to the limitations imposed by our current methods, most of the exoplanets discovered so far by surveys like the Kepler space observatory have been comparable in size to the giant planets of the Solar System. Because these large planets are inferred to share more in common with Jupiter than with the other giant planets, the term “Jovian Planet” has been used by many to describe them.

Many of these planets, being greater in mass than Jupiter, have also been dubbed as “Super-Jupiters” by astronomers. Such planets exist at the borderline between planets and brown dwarf stars, the smallest stars known to exist in our Universe. They can be up to 80 times more massive than Jupiter but are still comparable in size, since their stronger gravity compresses the material into an ever denser, more compact sphere.

Artist's concept of "hot Jupiter" exoplanet HD 149026b (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the “Hot Jupiter” exoplanet HD 149026b. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Those Super-Jupiters that have distant orbits from their parent stars are known as “Cold Jupiters”, whereas those that have close orbits are called “Hot Jupiters”. A surprising number of Hot Jupiters have been observed by exoplanet surveys, due to the fact that they are particularly easy to spot using the Radial Velocity method – which measures the oscillation of parent stars due to the influence of their planets.

In the past, astronomers believed that Jupiter-like planets could only form in the outer reaches of a star system. However, the recent discovery of many Jupiter-sized planets orbiting close to their stars has cast doubt on this. Thanks to the discovery of Jovians beyond our Solar System, astronomers may be forced to rethink our models of planetary formation.

Since Galileo first observed Jupiter through his telescope, Jovian planets have been an endless source of fascination for us. And despite many centuries of research and progress, there are still many things we don’t know about them. Our latest effort to explore Jupiter, the Juno Mission, is expected to produce some rather interesting finds. Here’s hoping they bring us one step closer to understanding those darn Jovians!

We have written many interesting articles about gas giants here at Universe Today. Here’s the Solar System Guide, The Outer Planets, What’s Inside a Gas Giant?, and Which Planets Have Rings?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page and Science Daily’s the Jovian planets.

Astronomy Cast has a number of episodes on the Jovian planets, including Episode 56: Jupiter.