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.

The study, “Consequences of Giant Impacts on Early Uranus for Rotation, Internal Structure, Debris, and Atmospheric Erosion“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. The study was led by Jacob Kegerreis, a PhD researcher from Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, and included members from the Bay Area Environmental Research (BAER) Institute, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Descartes Labs, the University of Washington and UC Santa Cruz.

Artist’s impression of the huge impact that is believed have formed the Moon roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: Joe Tucciarone

For the sake of their study, which was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, The Royal Society, NASA and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the team ran the first high-resolution computer simulations of how massive collisions with Uranus would affect the planet’s evolution. As Kegerries explained in a recent Durham University press release:

“Uranus spins on its side, with its axis pointing almost at right angles to those of all the other planets in the solar system. This was almost certainly caused by a giant impact, but we know very little about how this actually happened and how else such a violent event affected the planet.”

To determine how a giant impact would affect Uranus, the team conducted a suite of smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH) simulations, which were also used in the past to model the giant impact that led to the formation of the Moon (aka. the Giant Impact Theory). All told, the team ran more than 50 different impact scenarios using a high-powered computer to see if it would recreate the conditions that shaped Uranus.

In the end, the simulations confirmed that Uranus’ tilted position was caused by a collision with a massive object (between two and three Earth masses) that took place roughly 4 billion years ago – i.e. during the formation of the Solar System. This was consistent with a previous study that indicated that an impact with a young proto-planet made of rock and ice could have been responsible for Uranus’ axial tilt.

Composite image of Uranus by Voyager 2 and two different observations made by Hubble — one for the ring and one for the auroras. Credit: NASA/ESA

“Our findings confirm that the most likely outcome was that the young Uranus was involved in a cataclysmic collision with an object twice the mass of Earth, if not larger, knocking it on to its side and setting in process the events that helped create the planet we see today,” said Kegerries.

In addition, the simulations answered a fundamental questions about Uranus that was raised in response to previous studies. Essentially, scientists have wondered how Uranus could retain its atmosphere after a violent collision, which would have theoretically blown off its out layers of hydrogen and helium gas. According to the team’s simulations, this was most likely because the impact struck a grazing a blow on Uranus.

This would have been enough to alter Uranus’ tilt, but was not strong enough to remove its outer atmosphere. In addition, their simulations indicated that the impact could have jettisoned rock and ice into orbit around the planet. This could then have coalesced to form the planet’s inner satellites and altered the rotation of any pre-existing moons already in orbit around Uranus.

Last, but not least, the simulations offered a possible explanation for how Uranus got its off-center magnetic field and its thermal anomalies. In short, the impact could have created molten ice and lopsided lumps of rock inside the planet (thus accounting for its magnetic field). It could have also created a thin shell of debris near the edge of the planet’s ice layer which would have trapped internal heat, which could explain why Uranus’ outer atmosphere experiences extremely cold temperatures of -216 °C (-357 °F).

This artist’s conception shows the Uranus-sized exoplanet Kepler-421b, which orbits an orange, type K star about 1,000 light-years from Earth. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Beyond helping astronomers to understand Uranus, one of the least-understood planets in the Solar System, the study also has implications when it comes to the study of exoplanets. So far, most of the planets discovered in other star systems have been comparable in size and mass to Uranus. As such, the researchers hope their findings will shed light on these planet’s chemical compositions and explain how they evolved.

As Dr. Luis Teodoro – of the BAER Institute and NASA Ames Research Center – and one of the co-authors on the paper, said, “All the evidence points to giant impacts being frequent during planet formation, and with this kind of research we are now gaining more insight into their effect on potentially habitable exoplanets.”

In the coming years, additional missions are planned to study the outer Solar System and the giant planets. These studies will not only help astronomers understand how our Solar System evolved, they could also tell us what role gas giants play when it comes to habitability.

Further Reading: Durham University, The Astrophysical Journal

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

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 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.

Sources:

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

“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?

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…

Definition:

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.

Exoplanets:

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.

Solar System Guide

The Solar System. Image Credit: NASA

The Universe is a very big place, and we occupy a very small corner of it. Known as the Solar System, our stomping grounds are not only a tiny fraction of the Universe as we know it, but is also a very small part of our galactic neighborhood (aka. the Milky Way Galaxy). When it comes right down to it, our world is just a drop of water in an endless cosmic sea.

Nevertheless, the Solar System is still a very big place, and one which is filled with its fair share of mysteries. And in truth, it was only within the relatively recent past that we began to understand its true extent. And when it comes to exploring it, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface.

Discovery:

With very few exceptions, few people or civilizations before the era of modern astronomy recognized the Solar System for what it was. In fact, the vast majority of astronomical systems posited that the Earth was a stationary object and that all known celestial objects revolved around it. In addition, they viewed it as being fundamentally different from other stellar objects, which they held to be ethereal or divine in nature.

Although there were some Greek, Arab and Asian astronomers during Antiquity and the Medieval period who believed that the universe was heliocentric in nature (i.e. that the Earth and other bodies revolved around the Sun) it was not until Nicolaus Copernicus developed his mathematically predictive model of a heliocentric system in the 16th century that it began to become widespread.

The first star party? Galileo shows of the sky in Saint Mark's square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. (Illustration in the Public Domain).
Galileo (1564 – 1642) would often show people how to use his telescope to view the sky in Saint Mark’s square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. Credit: Public Domain

During the 17th-century, scientists like Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton developed an understanding of physics which led to the gradual acceptance that the Earth revolves round the Sun. The development of theories like gravity also led to the realization that the other planets are governed by the same physical laws as Earth.

The widespread use of the telescope also led to a revolution in astronomy. After Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610, Christian Huygens would go on to discover that Saturn also had moons in 1655. In time, new planets would also be discovered (such as Uranus and Neptune), as well as comets (such as Halley’s Comet) and the Asteroids Belt.

By the 19th century, three observations made by three separate astronomers determined the true nature of the Solar System and its place the universe. The first was made in 1839 by German astronomer Friedrich Bessel, who successfully measured an apparent shift in the position of a star created by the Earth’s motion around the Sun (aka. stellar parallax). This not only confirmed the heliocentric model beyond a doubt, but revealed the vast distance between the Sun and the stars.

In 1859, Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff (a German chemist and physicist) used the newly invented spectroscope to examined the spectral signature of the Sun. They discovered that it was composed of the same elements as existed on Earth, thus proving that Earth and the heavens were composed of the same elements.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth's orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. CREDIT: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.
With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

Then, Father Angelo Secchi  – an Italian astronomer and director at the Pontifical Gregorian University – compared the spectral signature of the Sun with those of other stars, and found them to be virtually identical. This demonstrated conclusively that our Sun was composed of the same materials as every other star in the universe.

Further apparent discrepancies in the orbits of the outer planets led American astronomer Percival Lowell to conclude that yet another planet, which he referred to as “Planet X“, must lie beyond Neptune. After his death, his Lowell Observatory conducted a search that ultimately led to Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930.

Also in 1992, astronomers David C. Jewitt of the University of Hawaii and Jane Luu of the MIT discovered the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) known as (15760) 1992 QB1. This would prove to be the first of a new population, known as the Kuiper Belt, which had already been predicted by astronomers to exist at the edge of the Solar System.

Further investigation of the Kuiper Belt by the turn of the century would lead to additional discoveries. The discovery of Eris and other “plutoids” by Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, David Rabinowitz and other astronomers would lead to the Great Planet Debate – where IAU policy and the convention for designating planets would be contested.

Structure and Composition:

At the core of the Solar System lies the Sun (a G2 main-sequence star) which is then surrounded by four terrestrial planets (the Inner Planets), the main Asteroid Belt, four gas giants (the Outer Planets), a massive field of small bodies that extends from 30 AU to 50 AU from the Sun (the Kuiper Belt). The system is then surrounded a spherical cloud of icy planetesimals (the Oort Cloud) that is believed to extend to a distance of 100,000 AU from the Sun into the Interstellar Medium.

The Sun contains 99.86% of the system’s known mass, and its gravity dominates the entire system. Most large objects in orbit around the Sun lie near the plane of Earth’s orbit (the ecliptic) and most planets and bodies rotate around it in the same direction (counter-clockwise when viewed from above Earth’s north pole). The planets are very close to the ecliptic, whereas comets and Kuiper belt objects are frequently at greater angles to it.

It’s four largest orbiting bodies (the gas giants) account for 99% of the remaining mass, with Jupiter and Saturn together comprising more than 90%. The remaining objects of the Solar System (including the four terrestrial planets, the dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, and comets) together comprise less than 0.002% of the Solar System’s total mass.

Sun and Planets
The Sun and planets to scale. Credit: Illustration by Judy Schmidt, texture maps by Björn Jónsson

Astronomers sometimes informally divide this structure into separate regions. First, there is the Inner Solar System, which includes the four terrestrial planets and the Asteroid Belt. Beyond this, there’s the outer Solar System that includes the four gas giant planets. Meanwhile, there’s the outermost parts of the Solar System are considered a distinct region consisting of the objects beyond Neptune (i.e. Trans-Neptunian Objects).

Most of the planets in the Solar System possess secondary systems of their own, being orbited by planetary objects called natural satellites (or moons). In the case of the four giant planets, there are also planetary rings – thin bands of tiny particles that orbit them in unison. Most of the largest natural satellites are in synchronous rotation, with one face permanently turned toward their parent.

The Sun, which comprises nearly all the matter in the Solar System, is composed of roughly 98% hydrogen and helium. The terrestrial planets of the Inner Solar System are composed primarily of silicate rock, iron and nickel. Beyond the Asteroid Belt, planets are composed mainly of gases (such as hydrogen, helium) and ices – like water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide.

Objects farther from the Sun are composed largely of materials with lower melting points. Icy substances comprise the majority of the satellites of the giant planets, as well as most of Uranus and Neptune (hence why they are sometimes referred to as “ice giants”) and the numerous small objects that lie beyond Neptune’s orbit.

Together, gases and ices are referred to as volatiles. The boundary in the Solar System beyond which those volatile substances could condense is known as the frost line, which lies roughly 5 AU from the Sun. Within the Kuiper Belt, objects and planetesimals are composed mainly of these materials and rock.

Formation and Evolution:

The Solar System formed 4.568 billion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a region within a large molecular cloud composed of hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of heavier elements fused by previous generations of stars. As the region that would become the Solar System (known as the pre-solar nebula) collapsed, conservation of angular momentum caused it to rotate faster.

The center, where most of the mass collected, became increasingly hotter than the surrounding disc. As the contracting nebula rotated faster, it began to flatten into a protoplanetary disc with a hot, dense protostar at the center. The planets formed by accretion from this disc, in which dust and gas gravitated together and coalesced to form ever larger bodies.

Due to their higher boiling points, only metals and silicates could exist in solid form closer to the Sun, and these would eventually form the terrestrial planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Because metallic elements only comprised a very small fraction of the solar nebula, the terrestrial planets could not grow very large.

In contrast, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) formed beyond the point between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where material is cool enough for volatile icy compounds to remain solid (i.e. the frost line).

The ices that formed these planets were more plentiful than the metals and silicates that formed the terrestrial inner planets, allowing them to grow massive enough to capture large atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. Leftover debris that never became planets congregated in regions such as the asteroid belt, Kuiper belt, and Oort cloud.

Within 50 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the center of the protostar became great enough for it to begin thermonuclear fusion. The temperature, reaction rate, pressure, and density increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved.

At this point, the Sun became a main-sequence star. Solar wind from the Sun created the heliosphere and swept away the remaining gas and dust from the protoplanetary disc into interstellar space, ending the planetary formation process.

The terrestrial planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The terrestrial planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

The Solar System will remain roughly as we know it today until the hydrogen in the core of the Sun has been entirely converted to helium. This will occur roughly 5 billion years from now and mark the end of the Sun’s main-sequence life. At this time, the core of the Sun will collapse, and the energy output will be much greater than at present.

The outer layers of the Sun will expand to roughly 260 times its current diameter, and the Sun will become a red giant. The expanding Sun is expected to vaporize Mercury and Venus and render Earth uninhabitable as the habitable zone moves out to the orbit of Mars. Eventually, the core will be hot enough for helium fusion and the Sun will burn helium for a time, after which nuclear reactions in the core will start to dwindle.

At this point, the Sun’s outer layers will move away into space, leaving a white dwarf – an extraordinarily dense object that will have half the original mass of the Sun, but will be the size of Earth. The ejected outer layers will form what is known as a planetary nebula, returning some of the material that formed the Sun to the interstellar medium.

Inner Solar System:

In the inner Solar System, we find the “Inner Planets” – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – which are so named because they orbit closest to the Sun. In addition to their proximity, these planets have a number of key differences that set them apart from planets elsewhere in the Solar System.

For starters, the inner planets are rocky and terrestrial, composed mostly of silicates and metals, whereas the outer planets are gas giants. The inner planets are also much more closely spaced than their outer Solar System counterparts. In fact, the radius of the entire region is less than the distance between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn.

Generally, inner planets are smaller and denser than their counterparts, and have few to no moons or rings circling them. The outer planets, meanwhile, often have dozens of satellites and rings composed of particles of ice and rock.

The terrestrial inner planets are composed largely of refractory minerals such as the silicates, which form their crusts and mantles, and metals such as iron and nickel which form their cores. Three of the four inner planets (Venus, Earth and Mars) have atmospheres substantial enough to generate weather. All of them have impact craters and tectonic surface features as well, such as rift valleys and volcanoes.

Of the inner planets, Mercury is the closest to our Sun and the smallest of the terrestrial planets. Its magnetic field is only about 1% that of Earth’s, and it’s very thin atmosphere means that it is hot during the day (up to 430°C) and freezing at night (as low as -187 °C) because the atmosphere can neither keep heat in or out. It has no moons of its own and is comprised mostly of iron and nickel. Mercury is one of the densest planets in the Solar System.

Venus, which is about the same size as Earth, has a thick toxic atmosphere that traps heat, making it the hottest planet in the Solar System. This atmosphere is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, along with nitrogen and a few other gases. Dense clouds within Venus’ atmosphere are composed of sulphuric acid and other corrosive compounds, with very little water. Much of Venus’ surface is marked with volcanoes and deep canyons – the biggest of which is over 6400 km (4,000 mi) long.

Earth is the third inner planet and the one we know best. Of the four terrestrial planets, Earth is the largest, and the only one that currently has liquid water, which is necessary for life as we know it. Earth’s atmosphere protects the planet from dangerous radiation and helps keep valuable sunlight and warmth in, which is also essential for life to survive.

Like the other terrestrial planets, Earth has a rocky surface with mountains and canyons, and a heavy metal core. Earth’s atmosphere contains water vapor, which helps to moderate daily temperatures. Like Mercury, the Earth has an internal magnetic field. And our Moon, the only one we have, is comprised of a mixture of various rocks and minerals.

Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA
Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA

Mars is the fourth and final inner planet, and is also known as the “Red Planet” due to the oxidization of iron-rich materials that form the planet’s surface. Mars also has some of the most interesting terrain features of any of the terrestrial planets. These include the largest mountain in the Solar System (Olympus Mons) which rises some 21,229 m (69,649 ft) above the surface, and a giant canyon called Valles Marineris – which is 4000 km (2500 mi) long and reaches depths of up to 7 km (4 mi).

Much of Mars’ surface is very old and filled with craters, but there are geologically newer areas of the planet as well. At the Martian poles are polar ice caps that shrink in size during the Martian spring and summer. Mars is less dense than Earth and has a smaller magnetic field, which is indicative of a solid core, rather than a liquid one.

Mars’ thin atmosphere has led some astronomers to believe that the surface water that once existed there might have actually taken liquid form, but has since evaporated into space. The planet has two small moons called Phobos and Deimos.

Outer Solar System:

The outer planets (sometimes called Jovian planets or gas giants) are huge planets swaddled in gas that have rings and plenty of moons. Despite their size, only two of them are visible without telescopes: Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune were the first planets discovered since antiquity, and showed astronomers that the solar system was bigger than previously thought.

The outer planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The outer planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System and spins very rapidly (10 Earth hours) relative to its orbit of the sun (12 Earth years). Its thick atmosphere is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, perhaps surrounding a terrestrial core that is about Earth’s size. The planet has dozens of moons, some faint rings and a Great Red Spot – a raging storm that has happening for the past 400 years at least.

Saturn is best known for its prominent ring system – seven known rings with well-defined divisions and gaps between them. How the rings got there is one subject under investigation. It also has dozens of moons. Its atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, and it also rotates quickly (10.7 Earth hours) relative to its time to circle the Sun (29 Earth years).

Uranus was first discovered by William Herschel in 1781. The planet’s day takes about 17 Earth hours and one orbit around the Sun takes 84 Earth years. Its mass contains water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen and helium surrounding a rocky core. It has dozens of moons and a faint ring system. The only spacecraft to visit this planet was the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986.

Neptune is a distant planet that contains water, ammmonia, methane, hydrogen and helium and a possible Earth-sized core. It has more than a dozen moons and six rings. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft also visited this planet and its system by 1989 during its transit of the outer Solar System.

How many moons are there in the Solar System? Image credit: NASA
How many moons are there in the Solar System? Image credit: NASA

Trans-Neptunian Region:

There have been more than a thousand objects discovered in the Kuiper Belt, and it’s theorized that there are as many as 100,000 objects larger than 100 km in diameter. Given to their small size and extreme distance from Earth, the chemical makeup of KBOs is very difficult to determine.

However, spectrographic studies conducted of the region since its discovery have generally indicated that its members are primarily composed of ices: a mixture of light hydrocarbons (such as methane), ammonia, and water ice – a composition they share with comets. Initial studies also confirmed a broad range of colors among KBOs, ranging from neutral grey to deep red.

This suggests that their surfaces are composed of a wide range of compounds, from dirty ices to hydrocarbons. In 1996, Robert H. Brown et al. obtained spectroscopic data on the KBO 1993 SC, revealing its surface composition to be markedly similar to that of Pluto (as well as Neptune’s moon Triton) in that it possessed large amounts of methane ice.

Water ice has been detected in several KBOs, including 1996 TO66, 38628 Huya and 20000 Varuna. In 2004, Mike Brown et al. determined the existence of crystalline water ice and ammonia hydrate on one of the largest known KBOs, 50000 Quaoar. Both of these substances would have been destroyed over the age of the Solar System, suggesting that Quaoar had been recently resurfaced, either by internal tectonic activity or by meteorite impacts.

Keeping Pluto company out in the Kuiper belt are many other objects worthy of mention. Quaoar, Makemake, Haumea, Orcus and Eris are all large icy bodies in the Belt and several of them even have moons of their own. These are all tremendously far away, and yet, very much within reach.

Oort Cloud and Farthest Regions:

The Oort Cloud is thought to extend from between 2,000 and 5,000 AU (0.03 and 0.08 ly) to as far as 50,000 AU (0.79 ly) from the Sun, though some estimates place the outer edge as far as 100,000 and 200,000 AU (1.58 and 3.16 ly). The Cloud is thought to be comprised of two regions – a spherical outer Oort Cloud of 20,000 – 50,000 AU (0.32 – 0.79 ly), and disc-shaped inner Oort (or Hills) Cloud of 2,000 – 20,000 AU (0.03 – 0.32 ly).

The outer Oort cloud may have trillions of objects larger than 1 km (0.62 mi), and billions that measure 20 kilometers (12 mi) in diameter. Its total mass is not known, but – assuming that Halley’s Comet is a typical representation of outer Oort Cloud objects – it has the combined mass of roughly 3×1025 kilograms (6.6×1025 pounds), or five Earths.

The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA
The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA

Based on the analyses of past comets, the vast majority of Oort Cloud objects are composed of icy volatiles – such as water, methane, ethane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and ammonia. The appearance of asteroids thought to be originating from the Oort Cloud has also prompted theoretical research that suggests that the population consists of 1-2% asteroids.

Earlier estimates placed its mass up to 380 Earth masses, but improved knowledge of the size distribution of long-period comets has led to lower estimates. The mass of the inner Oort Cloud, meanwhile, has yet to be characterized. The contents of both Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud are known as Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), because the objects of both regions have orbits that that are further from the Sun than Neptune’s orbit.

Exploration:

Our knowledge of the Solar System also benefited immensely from the advent of robotic spacecraft, satellites, and robotic landers. Beginning in the mid-20th century, in what was known as “The Space Age“, manned and robotic spacecraft began exploring planets, asteroids and comets in the Inner and Outer Solar System.

All planets in the Solar System have now been visited to varying degrees by spacecraft launched from Earth. Through these unmanned missions, humans have been able to get close-up photographs of all the planets. In the case of landers and rovers, tests have been performed on the soils and atmospheres of some.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

The first artificial object sent into space was the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, which was launched in space in 1957, successfully orbited the Earth for months, and collected information on the density of the upper atmosphere and the ionosphere. The American probe Explorer 6, launched in 1959, was the first satellite to capture images of the Earth from space.

Robotic spacecraft conducting flybys also revealed considerable information about the planet’s atmospheres, geological and surface features. The first successful probe to fly by another planet was the Soviet Luna 1 probe, which sped past the Moon in 1959. The Mariner program resulted in multiple successful planetary flybys, consisting of the Mariner 2 mission past Venus in 1962, the Mariner 4 mission past Mars in 1965, and the Mariner 10 mission past Mercury in 1974.

By the 1970’s, probes were being dispatched to the outer planets as well, beginning with the Pioneer 10 mission which flew past Jupiter in 1973 and the Pioneer 11 visit to Saturn in 1979. The Voyager probes performed a grand tour of the outer planets following their launch in 1977, with both probes passing Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980-1981. Voyager 2 then went on to make close approaches to Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.

Launched on January 19th, 2006, the New Horizons probe is the first man-made spacecraft to explore the Kuiper Belt. This unmanned mission flew by Pluto in July 2015. Should it prove feasible, the mission will also be extended to observe a number of other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) in the coming years.

Orbiters, rovers, and landers began being deployed to other planets in the Solar System by the 1960’s. The first was the Soviet Luna 10 satellite, which was sent into lunar orbit in 1966. This was followed in 1971 with the deployment of the Mariner 9 space probe, which orbited Mars, and the Soviet Venera 9 which orbited Venus in 1975.

The Galileo probe became the first artificial satellite to orbit an outer planet when it reached Jupiter in 1995, followed by the CassiniHuygens probe orbiting Saturn in 2004. Mercury and Vesta were explored by 2011 by the MESSENGER and Dawn probes, respectively, with Dawn establishing orbit around the asteroid/dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.

The first probe to land on another Solar System body was the Soviet Luna 2 probe, which impacted the Moon in 1959. Since then, probes have landed on or impacted on the surfaces of Venus in 1966 (Venera 3), Mars in 1971 (Mars 3 and Viking 1 in 1976), the asteroid 433 Eros in 2001 (NEAR Shoemaker), and Saturn’s moon Titan (Huygens) and the comet Tempel 1 (Deep Impact) in 2005.

Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop where the robot conducted historic first sample drilling inside the Yellowknife Bay basin, on Feb. 8 (Sol 182) at lower left in front of rover. The photo mosaic was stitched from raw images snapped on Sol 177, or Feb 3, 2013, by the robotic arm camera - accounting for foreground camera distortion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).
Curiosity Rover self portrait mosaic, taken with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop in Feb. 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer

To date, only two worlds in the Solar System, the Moon and Mars, have been visited by mobile rovers. The first robotic rover to land on another planet was the Soviet Lunokhod 1, which landed on the Moon in 1970. The first to visit another planet was Sojourner, which traveled 500 meters across the surface of Mars in 1997, followed by Spirit (2004), Opportunity (2004), and Curiosity (2012).

Manned missions into space began in earnest in the 1950’s, and was a major focal point for both the United States and Soviet Union during the “Space Race“. For the Soviets, this took the form of the Vostok program, which involved sending manned space capsules into orbit.

The first mission – Vostok 1 – took place on April 12th, 1961, and was piloted by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first human being to go into space). On June 6th, 1963, the Soviets also sent the first woman – Valentina Tereshvoka – into space as part of the Vostok 6 mission.

In the US, Project Mercury was initiated with the same goal of placing a crewed capsule into orbit. On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard went into space aboard the Freedom 7 mission and became the first American (and second human) to go into space.

After the Vostok and Mercury programs were completed, the focus of both nations and space programs shifted towards the development of two and three-person spacecraft, as well as the development of long-duration spaceflights and extra-vehicular activity (EVA).

Bootprint in the moon dust from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA
Bootprint in the moon dust from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

This took the form of the Voshkod and Gemini programs in the Soviet Union and US, respectively. For the Soviets, this involved developing a two to three-person capsule, whereas the Gemini program focused on developing the support and expertise needed for an eventual manned mission to the Moon.

These latter efforts culminated on July 21st, 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. As part of the Apollo program, five more Moon landings would take place through 1972, and the program itself resulted in many scientific packages being deployed on the Lunar surface, and samples of moon rocks being returned to Earth.

After the Moon Landing took place, the focus of the US and Soviet space programs then began to shift to the development of space stations and reusable spacecraft. For the Soviets, this resulted in the first crewed orbital space stations dedicated to scientific research and military reconnaissance – known as the Salyut and Almaz space stations.

The first orbital space station to host more than one crew was NASA’s Skylab, which successfully held three crews from 1973 to 1974. The first true human settlement in space was the Soviet space station Mir, which was continuously occupied for close to ten years, from 1989 to 1999. It was decommissioned in 2001, and its successor, the International Space Station, has maintained a continuous human presence in space since then.

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

The United States’ Space Shuttle, which debuted in 1981, became the only reusable spacecraft to successfully make multiple orbital flights. The five shuttles that were built (Atlantis, Endeavour, Discovery, Challenger, Columbia and Enterprise) flew a total of 121 missions before being decommissioned in 2011.

During their history of service, two of the craft were destroyed in accidents. These included the Space Shuttle Challenger – which exploded upon take-off on Jan. 28th, 1986 – and the Space Shuttle Columbia which disintegrated during re-entry on Feb. 1st, 2003.

In 2004, then-U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which called for a replacement for the aging Shuttle, a return to the Moon and, ultimately, a manned mission to Mars. These goals have since been maintained by the Obama administration, and now include plans for an Asteroid Redirect mission, where a robotic craft will tow an asteroid closer to Earth so a manned mission can be mounted to it.

All the information gained from manned and robotic missions about the geological phenomena of other planets – such as mountains and craters – as well as their seasonal, meteorological phenomena (i.e. clouds, dust storms and ice caps) have led to the realization that other planets experience much the same phenomena as Earth. In addition, it has also helped scientists to learn much about the history of the Solar System and its formation.

As our exploration of the Inner and Outer Solar System has improved and expanded, our conventions for categorizing planets has also changed. Our current model of the Solar System includes eight planets (four terrestrial, four gas giants), four dwarf planets, and a growing number of Trans-Neptunian Objects that have yet to be designated. It also contains and is surrounded by countless asteroids and planetesimals.

Given its sheer size, composition and complexity, researching our Solar System in full detail would take an entire lifetime. Obviously, no one has that kind of time to dedicate to the topic, so we have decided to compile the many articles we have about it here on Universe Today in one simple page of links for your convenience.

There are thousands of facts about the solar system in the links below. Enjoy your research.

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Uranus’s Moon Oberon

In 1610, Galileo’s observed four satellites orbiting the distant gas giant of Jupiter. This discovery would ignite a revolution in astronomy, and encouraged further examinations of the outer Solar System to see what other mysteries it held. In the centuries that followed, astronomers not only discovered that other gas giants had similar systems of moons, but that these systems were rather extensive.

For example, Uranus has a system of 27 confirmed satellites. Of these, Oberon is the outermost satellite, as well as the second largest and second most-massive. Named in honor of a mythical king of fairies, it is also the ninth most massive moon in the Solar System.

Discovery and Naming:

Discovered in 1787 by Sir William Herschel, Oberon was one of two major satellites discovered in a single day (the other being Uranus’ moon of Titania). At the time, he reported observing four other moons; however, the Royal Astronomical Society would later determine that these were spurious. It would be almost five decades after the moons were discovered that an astronomer other than Herschel observed them.

Initially, Oberon was referred to as “the second satellite of Uranus”, and in 1848, was given the designation Uranus II by William Lassell. In 1851, Lassell discovered Uranus’ other two moons – later named Ariel and Miranda – and began numbering them based on their distance from the planet . Oberon was thus given the designation of Uranus IV.

Size comparison between the Earth, the Moon, and Saturn's moon of Oberon. Credit: Tom.Reding/Public Domain
Size comparison between the Earth, the Moon, and Uranus’ moon of Oberon. Credit: Tom.Reding/Public Domain

By 1852, Herschel’s son John suggested naming the moon’s his father observed Oberon and Titania, at the request of Lassell himself. All of these names were taken from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, with the name Oberon being derived from the King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a diameter of approx. 1,523 kilometers, a surface area of 7,285,000 km², and a mass of 3.014 ± 0.075 x 10²¹ kilograms, Oberon is the second largest, and second most massive of Uranus’ moons. It is also the ninth most massive moon in the solar system.

At a distance of 584,000 km from Uranus, it is the farthest of the five major moons from Uranus. However, this distance is subject to change, as Oberon has a small orbital eccentricity and inclination relative to Uranus’ equator. It has an orbital period of about 13.5 days, coincident with its rotational period. This means that Oberon is a tidally-locked, synchronous satellite with one face always pointing toward the planet.

Since (like all of Uranus’ moons) Oberon orbits the planet around its equatorial plane, and Uranus orbits the Sun almost on its side, the moon experiences a rather extreme seasonal cycle. Essentially, both the northern and southern poles spend a period of 42 years in complete darkness or complete sunlight – with the sun rising close to the zenith over one of the poles at each solstice.

Voyager 2:

So far, the only close-up images of Oberon have been provided by the Voyager 2 probe, which photographed the moon during its flyby of Uranus in January 1986.  The images cover about 40% of the surface, but only 25% of the surface was imaged with a resolution that allows geological mapping.

In addition, the time of the flyby coincided with the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice, when nearly the entire northern hemisphere was in darkness. This prevented the northern hemisphere from being studied in any detail. No other spacecraft has visited the Uranian system before or since, and no missions to the planet are currently being planned.

Composition:

Oberon’s density is higher than the typical density of Uranus’ satellites, at 1.63 g/cm³. This would indicate that the moon consists of roughly equal proportions of water ice and a dense non-ice component. The latter could be made of rock and carbonaceous material including heavy organic compounds.

Spectroscopic observations have confirmed the presence of crystalline water ice in the surface of the moon. It is believed that Oberon, much like the other Uranian moons, consists of an icy mantle surrounding a rocky core. If this is true, then the radius of the core (480 km) would be equal to approx. 63% of the radius of the moon, and its mass would be around 54% of the moon’s mass.

A computer-projected false-color image of Oberon. The white region has not yet been photographed by a spacecraft. The large crater with the dark floor (right of center) is Hamlet; the crater Othello is to its lower left, and the 'canyon' Mommur Chasma is at upper left. Credit: USGS Astrogeology Research Program
False-color image of Oberon, showing the Hamlet and Othello craters (right of center and lower left) and the Mommur Chasma (upper left). Credit: USGS Astrogeology Research Program

Currently, the full composition of the icy mantle is unknown. However, it it were to contain enough ammonia or other antifreeze compounds, the moon may possess a liquid ocean layer at the core–mantle boundary. The thickness of this ocean, if it exists, would be up to 40 km and its temperature would be around 180 K.

It is unlikely that at these temperatures, such an ocean could support life. But assuming that hydrothermal vents exist in the interior, it is possible life could exist in small patches near the core. However, the internal structure of Oberon depends heavily on its thermal history, which is poorly known at present.

Interesting Facts:

Oberon is the second-darkest large moon of Uranus (after Umbriel), with a surface that appears to be generally red in color – except where fresh impact deposits have left neutral or slightly blue colors. In fact, Oberon is the reddest moon amongst its peers, with a trailing hemisphere that is significantly redder than its leading hemisphere.

The reddening of the surfaces is often a result of space weathering caused by bombardment of the surface by charged particles and micrometeorites over many millions of years. However, the color asymmetry of Oberon is more likely caused by accretion of a reddish material spiraling in from outer parts of the Uranian system.

Oberon’s surface is the most heavily cratered of all the Uranian moons, which would indicate that Oberon has the most ancient surface among them. Consistent with the planet’s name, these surface features are named after characters in Shakespearean plays. The largest known crater, Hamlet, measures 206 kilometers in diameter, while the Macbeth, Romeo, and Othello craters measure 203, 159, and 114 km respectively.

Uranus and its five major moons
Uranus and its five major moons. Credit: space.com

Other prominent surface features are what is known as chasmata – steep-sided depressions that are comparable to rift valleys or escarpments here on Earth. The largest known chasmata on Oberon is the Mommur Chasma, which measures 537 km in diameter and takes its name from the enchanted forest in French folklore that was ruled by Oberon.

As you can plainly see, there is much that remains unknown about this satellite. Much like its peers, how they came to be, and what secrets may lurk beneath their surfaces, is still open to speculation. One can only hope that future generations will choose to mount another Voyager-like expedition to the Outer Solar System for the sake of studying the Uranian satellites.

We have written many interesting articles on the moons of Uranus here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Moons Does Uranus Have? and Interesting Facts About Uranus.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Oberon and Nine Planet’s page on Oberon.

Astronomy Cast also has a good episode on the subject. Here’s Episode 62: Uranus.

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