Exploration of ocean worlds has become a hot topic of late, primarily due to their role as a potential harbor for alien life. Moons that have confirmed subsurface oceans garner much of the attention, such as Enceladus and Europa. But they may not be the only ones. Uranus’ larger moons – Miranda, Ariel, and Umbriel could potentially also have subsurface oceans even farther out into the solar system. We just haven’t sent any instruments close enough to be able to check. Now a team led by Dr. Corey Cochrane at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory has done some preliminary work to show that a relatively simple flyby of the Uranian system with an averagely sensitive magnetometer could provide the data needed to determine if those larger moons harbor subsurface oceans. This work is another step down the path of expanding what we think of as habitable environments in the solar system.Continue reading “What Mission Could Detect Oceans at Uranus’ Moons?”
Astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus—and two of its moons—230 years ago. Now a group of astronomers working with data from the telescope that bears his name, the Herschel Space Observatory, have made an unexpected discovery. It looks like Uranus’ moons bear a striking similarity to icy dwarf planets.
The Herschel Space Observatory has been retired since 2013. But all of its data is still of interest to researchers. This discovery was a happy accident, resulting from tests on data from the observatory’s camera detector. Uranus is a very bright infrared energy source, and the team was measuring the influence of very bright infrared objects on the camera.
The images of the moons were discovered by accident.Continue reading “Uranus’ Moons are Surprisingly Similar to Dwarf Planets in the Kuiper Belt”
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In the outer reaches of the Solar System, beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies a region permeated by celestial objects and minor planets. This region is known as the “Kuiper Belt“, and is named in honor of the 20th century astronomer who speculated about the existence of such a disc decades before it was observed. This disc, he reasoned, was the source of the Solar Systems many comets, and the reason there were no large planets beyond Neptune.
Gerard Kuiper is also regarded by many as being the “father of planetary science”. During the 1960s and 70s, he played a crucial role in the development of infrared airborne astronomy, a technology which led to many pivotal discoveries that would have been impossible using ground-based observatories. At the same time, he helped catalog asteroids, surveyed the Moon, Mars and the outer Solar System, and discovered new moons.
Ever since the Voyager space probes ventured into the outer Solar System, scientists and astronomers have come to understand a great deal of this region of space. In addition to the four massive gas giants that call the outer Solar System home, a great deal has been learned about the many moons that circle them. And thanks to photographs and data obtained, human beings as a whole have come to understand just how strange and awe-inspiring our Solar System really is.
This is especially true of Miranda, the smallest and innermost of Uranus’ large moons – and some would say, the oddest-looking! Like the other major Uranian moons, its orbits close to its planet’s equator, is perpendicular to the Solar System’s ecliptic, and therefore has an extreme seasonal cycle. Combined with one of the most extreme and varied topographies in the Solar System, this makes Miranda an understandable source of interest!
Discovery and Naming:
Miranda was discovered on February 16th, 1948, by Gerard Kuiper using the McDonald Observatory‘s Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas in Austin. Its motion around Uranus was confirmed on March 1st of the same year, making it the first satellite of Uranus to be discovered in almost a century (the previous ones being Ariel and Umbriel, which were both discovered in 1851 by William Lassell).
Consistent with the names of the other moons, Kuiper decided to the name the object “Miranda” after the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This continued the tradition set down by John Herschel, who suggested that all the large moons of Uranus – Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon – be named after characters from either The Tempest or Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of 235.8 ± 0.7 km and a mass of 6.59 ± 0.75 ×1019 kg, Miranda is 0.03697 Earths times the size of Earth and roughly 0.000011 as massive. Its modest size also makes it one of the smallest object in the Solar System to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium, with only Saturn’s moon of Mimas being smaller.
Of Uranus’ five larger moons, Miranda is the closest, orbiting at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 129,390 km. It has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0013 and an inclination of 4.232° to Uranus’ equator. This is unusually high for a body so close to its parent planet – roughly ten times that of the other Uranian satellites.
Since there are no mean-motion resonances to explain this, it has been hypothesized that the moons occasionally pass through secondary resonances. At some point, this would have led Miranda into being locked in a temporary 3:1 resonance with Umbriel, and perhaps a 5:3 resonance with Ariel as well. This resonance would have altered the moon’s inclination, and also led to tidal heating in its interior (see below).
With an average orbital speed of 6.66 km/s, Miranda takes 1.4 days to complete a single orbit of Uranus. Its orbital period (also 34 hours) is synchronous with its rotational period, meaning that it is tidally-locked with Uranus and maintains one face towards it at all times. Given that it orbits around Uranus’ equator, which means its orbit is perpendicular to the Sun’s ecliptic, Uranus goes through an extreme seasonal cycle where the northern and southern hemispheres experience 42 years of lightness and darkness at a time.
Composition and Surface Structure:
Miranda’s mean density (1.2 g/cm3) makes it the least dense of the Uranian moons. It also suggests that Miranda is largely composed of water ice (at least 60%), with the remainder likely consisting of silicate rock and organic compounds in the interior. The surface of Miranda is also the most diverse and extreme of all moons in the Solar System, with features that appear to be jumbled together in a haphazard fashion.
This consists of huge fault canyons as deep as 20 km (12 mi), terraced layers, and the juxtaposition of old and young surfaces seemingly at random. This patchwork of broken terrain indicates that intense geological activity took place in Miranda’s past, which is believed to have been driven by tidal heating during the time when it was in orbital resonance with Umbriel (and perhaps Ariel).
This resonance would have increased orbital eccentricity, and along with varying tidal forces from Uranus, would have caused warming in Miranda’s interior and led to resurfacing. In addition, the incomplete differentiation of the moon, whereby rock and ice were distributed more uniformly, could have led to an upwelling of lighter material in some areas, thus leading to young and older regions existing side by side.
Another theory is that Miranda was shattered by a massive impact, the fragments of which reassembled to produce a fractured core. In this scenario – which some scientists believe could have happened as many as five times – the denser fragments would have sunk deep into the interior, with water ice and volatiles setting on top of them and mirroring their fractured shape.
Overall, scientists recognize five types of geological features on Miranda, which includes craters, coronae (large grooved features), regiones (geological regions), rupes (scarps or canyons) and sulci (parallel grooves).
Miranda’s cratered regions are differentiated between younger, lightly-cratered regions and older, more-heavily cratered ones. The lightly cratered regions include ridges and valleys, which are separated from the more heavily-cratered areas by sharp boundaries of mismatched features. The largest known craters are about 30 km (20 mi) in diameter, with others lying in the range of 5 to 10 km (3 to 6 mi).
Miranda has the largest known cliff in the Solar System, which is known as Verona Rupes (named after the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). This rupes has a drop-off of over 5 km (3.1 mi) – making it 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon. Scientists suspect that Miranda’s ridges and canyons represent extensional tilt blocks – a tectonic event where tectonic plates stretch apart, forming patterns of jagged terrain with steep drops.
The most well known coronae exist in the southern hemisphere, with three giant ‘racetrack’-like grooved structures that measure at least 200 km (120 mi) wide and up to 20 km (12 mi) deep. These features, named Arden, Elsinore and Inverness – all locations in Shakespeare’s plays – may have formed via extensional processes at the tops of diapirs (aka. upwellings of warm ice).
Other features may be due to cryovolcanic eruptions of icy magma, which would have been driven by tidal flexing and heating in the past. With an albedo of 0.32, Miranda’s surface is nearly as bright as that of Ariel, the brightest of the larger Uranian moons. It’s slightly darker appearance is likely due to the presence of carbonaceous material within its surface ice.
Miranda’s apparent magnitude makes it invisible to many amateur telescopes. As a result, virtually all known information regarding its geology and geography was obtained during the only flyby of the Uranian system, which was made by Voyager 2 in 1986. During the flyby, Miranda’s southern hemisphere pointed towards the Sun (while the northern was shrouded in darkness), so only the southern hemisphere could be studied.
At this time, no future missions have been planned or are under consideration. But given Miranda’s “Frankenstein”-like appearance and the mysteries that still surround its history and geology, any future missions to study Uranus and its system of moons would be well-advised.
We have many interesting articles on Miranda and Uranus’ moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about about why they call it the “Frankenstein Moon“, and one about Voyager 2‘s historic flyby. And here’s one that answers the question How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?
For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Miranda.
The outer Solar System has enough mysteries and potential discoveries to keep scientists busy for decades. Case in point, Uranus and it’s system of moons. Since the beginning of the Space Age, only one space probe has ever passed by this planet and its system of moons. And yet, that which has been gleaned from this one mission, and over a century and a half of Earth- (and space-) based observation, has been enough to pique the interest of many generations of scientists.
For instance, just about all detailed knowledge of Uranus’ 27 known moons – including the “sprightly” moon Ariel – has been derived from information obtained by the Voyager 2 probe. Nevertheless, this single flyby revealed that Ariel is composed of equal parts ice and rock, a cratered and geologically active surface, and a seasonal cycle that is both extreme and very unusual (at least by our standards!)
Discovery and Naming:
Ariel was discovered on October 24th, 1851, by English astronomer William Lassel, who also discovered the larger moon of Umbriel on the same day. While William Herschel, who discovered Uranus’ two largest moons of Oberon and Titania in 1787, claimed to have observed four other moons in Uranus’ orbit, those claims have since been concluded to be erroneous.
As with all of Uranus’ moons, Ariel was named after a character from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In this case, Ariel refers to a spirit of the air who initiates the great storm in The Tempest and a sylph who protects the female protagonist in The Rape of the Lock. The names of all four then-known satellites of Uranus were suggested by John Herschel in 1852 at the request of Lassell.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of 578.9 ± 0.6 km and a mass of 1.353 ± 0.120 × 1021 kg, Ariel is equivalent in size to 0.0908 Earths and 0.000226 times as massive. Ariel’s orbit of Uranus is almost circular, with an average distance (semi-major axis) of 191,020 km – making it the second closest of Uranus’ five major moons (behind Miranda). It has a very small orbital eccentricity (0.0012) and is inclined very little relative to Uranus’ equator (0.260°).
With an average orbital velocity of 5.51 km/s, Ariel takes 2.52 days to complete a single orbit of Uranus. Like most moons in the outer Solar System, Ariel’s rotation is synchronous with its orbit. This means that the moon is tidally locked with Uranus, with one face constantly pointed towards the planet.
Ariel orbits and rotates within Uranus’ equatorial plane, which means it rotates perpendicular to the Sun. This means that its northern and southern hemispheres face either directly towards the Sun or away from it at the solstices, which results in an extreme seasonal cycle of permanent day or night for a period of 42 years.
Ariel’s orbit lies completely inside the Uranian magnetosphere, which means that its trailing hemisphere is regularly struck by magnetospheric plasma co-rotating with the planet. This bombardment is believed to be the cause of the darkening of the trailing hemispheres (see below), which has been observed for all Uranian moons (with the exception of Oberon).
Currently Ariel is not involved in any orbital resonance with other Uranian satellites. In the past, however, it may have been in a 5:3 resonance with Miranda, which could have been partially responsible for the heating of that moon, and 4:1 resonance with Titania, from which it later escaped.
Composition and Surface Features:
Ariel is the fourth largest of Uranus’ moons, but is believed to be the third most-massive. Its average density of 1.66 g/cm3 indicates that it is roughly composed of equal parts water ice and rock/carbonaceous material, including heavy organic compounds. Based on spectrographic analysis of the surface, the leading hemisphere of Ariel has been revealed to be richer in water ice than its trailing hemisphere.
The cause of this is currently unknown, but it may be related to bombardment by charged particles from Uranus’s magnetosphere, which is stronger on the trailing hemisphere. The interaction of energetic particles and water ice causes sublimation and the decomposition of methane trapped in the ice (as clathrate hydrate), darkening the methanogenic and other organic molecules and leaving behind a dark, carbon-rich residue (aka. tholins).
Based on its size, estimates of its ice/rock distribution, and the possibility of salt or ammonia in its interior, Ariel’s interior is thought to be differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. If true, the radius of the core would account for 64% of the moon’s radius (372 km) and 52% of its mass. And while the presence of water ice and ammonia could mean Ariel harbors an interior ocean at it’s core-mantle boundary, the existence of such an ocean is considered unlikely.
Infrared spectroscopy has also identified concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO²) on Ariel’s surface, particularly on its trailing hemisphere. In fact, Ariel shows the highest concentrations of CO² on of any Uranian satellite, and was the first moon to have this compound discovered on its surface.
Though the precise reason for this is unknown, it is possible that it is produced from carbonates or organic material that have been exposed to Uranus’ magnetosphere or solar ultraviolet radiation – due to the asymmetry between the leading and trailing hemispheres. Another explanation is outgassing, where primordial CO² trapped in Ariel’s interior ice escaped thanks to past geological activity.
The observed surface of Ariel can be divided into three terrain types: cratered terrain, ridged terrain and plains. Other features include chasmata (canyons), fault scarps (cliffs), dorsa (ridges) and graben (troughs or trenches). Impact craters are the most common feature on Ariel, particularly in the south pole, which is the moon’s oldest and most geographically extensive region.
Compared to the other moons of Uranus, Ariel appears to be fairly evenly-cratered. The surface density of the craters, which is significantly lower than those of Oberon and Umbriel, suggest that they do not date to the early history of the Solar System. This means that Ariel must have been completely resurfaced at some point in its history, most likely in the past when the planet had a more eccentric orbit and was therefore more geologically active.
The largest crater observed on Ariel, Yangoor, is only 78 km across, and shows signs of subsequent deformation. All large craters on Ariel have flat floors and central peaks, and few are surrounded by bright ejecta deposits. Many craters are polygonal, indicating that their appearance was influenced by the crust’s preexisting structure. In the cratered plains there are a few large (about 100 km in diameter) light patches that may be degraded impact craters.
The cratered terrain is intersected by a network of scarps, canyons and narrow ridges, most of which occur in Ariel’s mid-southern latitudes. Known as chasmata, these canyons were probably graben that formed due to extensional faulting triggered by global tension stresses – which in turn are believed to have been caused by water and/or liquid ammonia freezing in the interior.
These chasmata are typically 15–50 km wide and are mainly oriented in an east- or northeasterly direction. The widest graben have grooves running along the crests of their convex floors (known as valles). The longest canyon is Kachina Chasma, which is over 620 km long.
The ridged terrain on Ariel, which is the second most-common type, consists of bands of ridges and troughs hundreds of kilometers long. These ridges are found bordering cratered terrain and cutting it into polygons. Within each band (25-70 km wide) individual ridges and troughs have been observed that are up to 200 km long and 10-35 km apart. Here too, these features are believed to be a modified form of graben or the result of geological stresses.
The youngest type of terrain observed on Ariel are its plains, which consists of relatively low-lying smooth areas. Due to the varying levels of cratering found in these areas, the plains are believed to have formed over a long period of time. They are found on the floors of canyons and in a few irregular depressions in the middle of the cratered terrain.
The most likely origin for the plains is through cryovolcanism, since their geometry resembles that of shield volcanoes on Earth, and their topographic margins suggests the eruption of viscous liquid – possibly liquid ammonia. The canyons must therefore have formed at a time when endogenic resurfacing was still taking place on Ariel.
Ariel is the most reflective of Uranus’s moons, with a Bond albedo of about 23%. The surface of Ariel is generally neutral in color, but there appears to be an asymmetry where the trailing hemisphere is slightly redder. The cause of this, is believed to be interaction between Ariel’s trailing hemisphere and radiation from Uranus’ magnetosphere and Solar ultraviolet radiation, which converts organic compounds in the ice into tholins.
Like all of Uranus’ major moons, Ariel is thought to have formed in the Uranunian accretion disc; which existed around Uranus for some time after its formation, or resulted from a large impact suffered by Uranus early in its history.
Due to its proximity to Uranus’ glare, Ariel is difficult to view by amateur astronomers. However, since the 19th century, Ariel has been observed many times by ground-based on space-based instruments. For example, on July 26th, 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope captured a rare transit made by Ariel of Uranus, which cast a shadow that could be seen on the Uranian cloud tops. Another transit, in 2008, was recorded by the European Southern Observatory.
It was not until the 1980s that images were obtained by the first and only orbiter to ever pass through the Uranus’ system. This was the Voyager 2 space probe, which photographed the moon during its January 1986 flyby. The probe’s closest approach was at a distance of 127,000 km (79,000 mi) – significantly less than the distances to all other Uranian moons except Miranda.
The images acquired covered only about 40% of the surface, but only 35% was captured with the quality required for geological mapping and crater counting. This was partly due to the fact that the flyby coincided with the southern summer solstice, where the southern hemisphere was pointed towards the Sun and the northern hemisphere was completely concealed by darkness.
No missions have taken place to study Uranus’ system of moons since and none are currently planned. However, the possibility of sending the Cassini spacecraft to Uranus was evaluated during its mission extension planning phase in April of 2008. It was determined that it would take about twenty years for Cassini to get to the Uranian system after departing Saturn. However, this proposal and the ultimate fate of the mission remain undecided at this time.
All in all, Uranus’ moon Ariel is in good company. Like it’s fellow Uranians, its axial tilt is almost the exact same as Uranus’, it is composed of almost equal parts ice and rock, it is geologically active, and its orbit leads to an extreme seasonal cycle. However, Ariel stands alone when its to its brightness and its youthful surface. Unfortunately, this bright and youthful appearance has not made it an easier to observe.
Alas, as with all Uranian moons, exploration of this moon is still in its infancy and there is much we do not know about it. One can only hope another deep-space mission, like a modified Cassini flyby, takes place in the coming years and finishes the job started by Voyager 2!
We have many interesting articles on Ariel and Uranus’ moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about Ariel’s 2006 transit of Uranus, its 2008 transit, and one which answers the all-important question How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?
Thanks to the Voyager missions, which passed through the outer Solar system in the late 1970s and early 1980s, scientists were able to get the first close look at Uranus and its system of moons. Like all of the Solar Systems’ gas giants, Uranus has many fascinating satellites. In fact, astronomers can now account for 27 moons in orbit around the teal-colored giant.
Of these, none are greater in size, mass, or surface area than Titania, which was appropriately named. As one of the first moon’s to be discovered around Uranus, this heavily cratered and scarred moon takes it name from the fictional Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Discovery and Naming:
Titania was discovered by William Herschel on January 11th, 1787, the English astronomer who had discovered Uranus in 1781. The discovery was also made on the same day that he discovered Oberon, Uranus’ second-largest moon. Although Herschel reported observing four other moons at the time, the Royal Astronomical Society would later determine that this claim was spurious.
It would be almost five decades after Titania and Oberon was discovered that an astronomer other than Herschel would observe them. In addition, Titania would be referred to as “the first satellite of Uranus” for many years – or by the designation Uranus I, which was given to it by William Lassell in 1848.
By 1851, Lassell began to number all four known satellites in order of their distance from the planet by Roman numerals, at which point Titania’s designation became Uranus III. By 1852, Herschel’s son John, and at the behest of Lassell himself, suggested the moon’s name be changed to Titania, the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was consistent with all of Uranus’ satellites, which were given names from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a diameter of 1,578 kilometers, a surface area of 7,820,000 km² and a mass of 3.527±0.09 × 1021 kg, Titania is the largest of Uranus’ moons and the eighth largest moon in the Solar System. At a distance of about 436,000 km (271,000 mi), Titania is also the second farthest from the planet of the five major moons.
Titania’s moon also has a small eccentricity and is inclined very little relative to the equator of Uranus. It’s orbital period, which is 8.7 days, is also coincident with it’s rotational period. This means that Titania is a synchronous (or tidally-locked) satellite, with one face always pointing towards Uranus at all times.
Because Uranus orbits the Sun on its side, and its moons orbit the planet’s equatorial plane, they are all subject to an extreme seasonal cycle, where the northern and southern poles experience 42 years of either complete darkness or complete sunlight.
Scientists believe Titania is composed of equal parts rock (which may include carbonaceous materials and organic compounds) and ice. This is supported by examinations that indicate that Titania has an unusually high-density for a Uranian satellite (1.71 g/cm³). The presence of water ice is supported by infrared spectroscopic observations made in 2001–2005, which have revealed crystalline water ice on the surface of the moon.
It is also believed that Titania is differentiated into a rocky core surrounded by an icy mantle. If true, this would mean that the core’s radius is approx. 520 km (320 mi), which would mean the core accounts for 66% of the radius of the moon, and 58% of its mass.
As with Uranus’ other major moons, the current state of the icy mantle is unknown. However, if the ice contains enough ammonia or other antifreeze, Titania may have a liquid ocean layer at the core-mantle boundary. The thickness of this ocean, if it exists, is up to 50 km (31 mi) and its temperature is around 190 K.
Naturally, it is unlikely that such an ocean could support life. But assuming this ocean supports hydrothermal vents on its floor, it is possible life could exist in small patches close to the core. However, the internal structure of Oberon depends heavily on its thermal history, which is poorly known at present.
The only direct observations made of Titania were conducted by the Voyager 2 space probe, which photographed the moon during its flyby of Uranus in January 1986. These images covered about 40% of the surface, but only 24% was photographed with the precision required for geological mapping.
Voyager’s flyby of Titania coincided with the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice, when nearly the entire northern hemisphere was unilluminated. As with the other major moon’s of Uranus, this prevented the surface from being mapped in any detail. No other spacecraft has visited the Uranian system or Titania before or since, and no mission is planned in the foreseeable future.
Titania is intermediate in terms of brightness, occupying a middle spot between the dark moons of Oberon and Umbriel and the bright moons of Ariel and Miranda. It’s surface is generally red in color (less so than Oberon), except where fresh impact have taken place, which have left the surface blue in color. The surface of Titania is less heavily cratered than the surface of either Oberon or Umbriel, suggesting that its surface is much younger.
Like all of Uranus’ major moons, it’s geology is influenced by a combination of impact craters and endogenic resurfacing. Whereas the former acted over the moon’s entire history and influenced all its surfaces, the latter processes were mainly active following the moon’s formation and resulted in a smoothing out of its features – hence the low number of present-day impact craters.
Overall, scientists have recognized three classes of geological feature on Titania. These include craters, faults (or scarps) and what are known as grabens (sometimes called canyons). Titania’s craters range in diameter from a few kilometers to 326 kilometers – in the case of the largest known crater, Gertrude. Titania’s surface is also intersected by a system of enormous faults (scarps); and in some places, two parallel scarps mark depressions in the satellite’s crust, forming grabens (aka. canyons).
The grabens on Titania range in diameter from 20 to 50 kilometers (12–31 mi) and in a relief (i.e. depth) from 2 to 5 km. The most prominent graben on Titania is the Messina Chasma, which runs for about 1,500 kilometers (930 mi) from the equator almost to the south pole. The grabens are probably the youngest geological features on Titania, since they cut through all craters and even the smooth plains.
Like Oberon, the surface features on Titania have been named after characters in works by Shakespeare, with all of the physical features are named after female characters. For instance, the crater Gertrude is named after Hamlet’s mother, while other craters – Ursula, Jessica, and Imogen – are named after characters from Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymebline, respectively.
Interestingly, the presence of carbon dioxide on the surface suggests that Titania may also have a tenuous seasonal atmosphere of CO², much like that of the Jovian moon Callisto. Other gases, like nitrogen or methane, are unlikely to be present, because Titania’s weak gravity could not prevent them from escaping into space.
Like all of Uranus’ moons, much remains to be discovered about this most-massive of her satellites. In the coming years, one can only hope that NASA, the ESA, or other space agencies decide that another Voyager-like mission is need to the outer Solar System. Until such time, Uranus and the many moons that orbit it will continue to keep secrets from us.
Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject. Here’s Episode 172: William Herschel
In the outer Solar System, there are many worlds that are so large and impressive to behold that they will probably take your breath away. Not only are these gas/ice giants magnificent to look at, they are also staggering in size, have their own system a rings, and many, many moons. Typically, when one speaks of gas (and/or ice) giants and their moons, one tends to think about Jupiter (which has the most, at 67 and counting!).
But have you ever wondered how many moons Uranus has? Like all of the giant planets, it’s got rather a lot! In fact, astronomers can now account for 27 moons that are described as “Uranian”. Just like the other gas and ice giants, these moons are motley bunch that tell us much about the history of the Solar System. And, just like Jupiter and Saturn, the process of discovering these moons has been long and involved on multiple astronomers.
The 19th century was an auspicious time for astronomers and planet hunters. In addition to the discovery of the Asteroid Belt that rests between Mars and Jupiter – as well as the many minor planets within – the outer solar planet of Uranus and its series of moons were also observed for the very first time.
Of these, Umbriel was certainly one of the most interesting finds. Aside from being Uranus’ third largest moon, it is also its darkest – a trait which contributed greatly to the selection of its name. And to this day, this large satellite of Uranus is shrouded in mystery…
Discovery and Naming:
Umbriel, along with its fellow moon Ariel, was discovered by English astronomer William Lassell on October 24th, 1851. Fellow English astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered Uranus’ moons of Titania and Oberon at the end of the 18th century, also claimed to have observed four additional moons around Uranus. However, his observations were not confirmed, leaving the confirmed discoveries of Ariel and Umbriel to Lassell, roughly half a century later.
Much like all of Uranus’ 27 moons, Umbriel was named after a character from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, as well as plays by William Shakespeare. These names were suggested by John Herschel, the son of William Herschel, when he announced the discoveries of Titania and Oberon.
In keeping with the moon’s dark appearance, the name Umbriel – which was the name of the ‘dusky melancholy sprite’ in the The Rape of the Lock and is derived from the Latin Umbra (which means “shadow”) – seemed most appropriate for this satellite.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
Ariel and Umbriel are nearly the same size, with diameters of 1,158 kilometers and 1,170 kilometers respectively. Based on spectrograph analyses and estimates of the moon’s mass and density, astronomers believe that the majority of the planet consists of water ice, with a dense non-ice component constituting around 40% of its mass.
This could mean that Umbriel consists of an icy outer shell that surrounds a rocky core, or one made out of carbonaceous materials. It also means that though Umbriel is the third largest moon of Uranus, it is only the fourth largest in terms of mass. Furthermore, its dark appearance is believed to be the result of the interactions of surface water ice with energetic particles from Uranus’ magnetosphere.
These energetic particles would cause methane deposits (trapped in the ice as clathrate hydrate) to decompose and other organic molecules to darken, leaving behind a dark, carbon-rich residue. The satellite’s dark color is also due to its very low bond albedo – which is basically the amount of electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) that gets reflected back from the surface.
So far, spectrographic analyses have only confirmed the existence of water and carbon dioxide. So the existence of organic particles or methane deposits in the ice remains theoretical. However, their presence would explain the prevalence of CO² and why it is concentrated mainly on the trailing hemisphere.
Umbriel’s orbital period – i.e. the time it takes the moon to orbit Uranus – is approximately 4.1 days, which is coincident with its rotational period. This means that the moon is a synchronous and tidally-locked satellite, with one face always pointing towards Uranus. The satellite is at an average distance of 266,000 kilometers from its planet, which makes it the third farthest from Uranus, behind Miranda and Ariel.
So far, the only close-up images of Umbriel have been provided by the Voyager 2 probe, which photographed the moon during its flyby of Uranus in January of 1986. During this flyby, the closest distance between Voyager 2 and Umbriel was 325,000 km (202,000 mi).
The images cover about 40% of the surface, but only 20% was photographed with the quality required for geological mapping. At the time of the flyby, the southern hemisphere of Umbriel was pointed towards the Sun – so the northern, darkened hemisphere could not be studied. At present, no future missions are planned to study the moon in greater detail.
The surface of Umbriel has far more and larger craters than do Ariel and Titania, ranging in diameter from a few kilometers to several hundred. The largest known crater on the surface is Wokolo, which is 210 km in diameter. Wunda, a crater with a diameter of about 131 kilometers, is the most noticeable surface feature, due to the ring of bright material on its floor (which scientists think are from the impact).
Other craters include Fin, Peri, and Zlyden which, like all of Umbriel’s surface features, are named after dark sprites from different cultures’ mythology. The only satellite of Uranus to have more craters is Oberon, and the planet is believed to be geologically stable.
It is further believes that surface has probably been stable since the Late Heavy Bombardment. The only signs of ancient internal activity are canyons and dark polygons – dark patches with complex shapes measuring from tens to hundreds of kilometers across. The polygons were identified from precise photometry of Voyager 2′s images and are distributed more or less uniformly on the surface of Umbriel, trending northeast – southwest.
Because Uranus orbits the Sun almost on its side, it is subject to an extreme seasonal cycle. Both northern and southern poles spend 42 years in complete darkness, and another 42 years in continuous sunlight, with the Sun rising close to the zenith over one of the poles at each solstice.
Because they are in the planet’s equatorial plane, Uranus’ satellites also experience these changes. This means that Umbriel’s north and south poles spend 42 years in light and then 42 years in darkness before repeating the cycle. In fact, the Voyager 2 flyby coincided with the southern hemisphere’s 1986 summer solstice, when nearly the entire northern hemisphere was in darkness.
Interesting little moon isn’t it? Even though no missions are currently planned to observe it in the coming years, one can only hope that future satellites happen to sneak a peek at it on their way to some other destination in the outer Solar System.
Astronomy Cast has an episode on Uranus that you should check out.
Miranda, the innermost of Uranus’ five moons, has a “Frankenstein”-like appearance: it looks as though it was pieced together from parts that didn’t quite fit together properly. Plus, it has incredibly diverse surface features including canyons up to 12 times deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, impact craters, cliffs, and parallel grooves called sulci.
Over the years, various hypotheses have been presented in an attempt to account for Miranda’s enigmatic appearance. First thought to be the result of a catastrophic impact, disintegration, and subsequent reassembly, scientists now believe that some of Miranda’s features might have been influenced by Uranus itself, and are the result of convection: thermally-induced resurfacing from tidal forces from the planet.
Miranda was discovered in 1948 by Gerard Kuiper. Although it is only 293 miles (471 kilometers) in diameter (approximately one-seventh that of Earth’s moon,) it has one of the strangest and most varied landscapes in our Solar System.
Central to the new research was analysis of three very large, geometric shaped features known as coronae, which are only found on one other planetary body. Coronae were first identified on Venus in 1983 by Venera 15/16 radar imaging equipment.
A leading theory about their formation has been that they form when warm, sub-surface fluids rise to the surface and form a dome. As the edges of the dome cool, the center collapses and warm fluid leak out its sides, forming a crown-like structure, or corona. Based on this premise, the question is then raised as to what mechanism/processes in Miranda’s past warmed its interior sufficiently to produce warm, sub-surface fluids that resulted in coronae formation. Scientists believe that tidal warming played an important role in the formation of the coronae, but the process by which this internal heating led to these features has remained unclear.
Extensive 3D computer simulations conducted by Brown University’s Noah P. Hammond and Amy C. Barr have produced results that are consistent with the three coronae seen on Miranda. In their paper titled, “Global Resurfacing of Uranus’s Moon Miranda by Convection,” Hammond and Barr summarize their results as follows:
“We find that convection in Miranda’s ice shell powered by tidal heating can generate the global distribution of coronae, the concentric orientation of sub-parallel ridges and troughs, and the thermal gradient implied by flexure. Models that account for the possible distribution of tidal heat ing can even match the precise locations of the coronae, after a reorientation of 60°.”
Using Saturn’s moon Enceladus as a baseline due to its similarity in size, composition, and orbital frequency to Miranda, original calculations estimate that as much as 5 GW of tidal dissipation power could be generated. Hammond and Barr’s simulation results indicate almost twice that amount of power would have been created:
“Simulations that match the thermal gradient from flexure have total power outputs of close to 10 GW , somewhat larger than the total power we predict could be generated during orbital resonance.”
Results from Hammond and Barr’s simulations provide a preliminary set of answers that strive to unlock the mysteries of Miranda’s bizarre appearance. Future simulations and studies into the complex nature of tidal heating will build upon these results to provide further insight into the enigmatic moon we call Miranda.
“Global Resurfacing of Uranus’s Moon Miranda by Convection,” was published online on 15 September 2014 in GEOLOGY, a journal of The Geological Society of America. You can read the abstract here.
The gas (and ice) giant known as Uranus is a fascinating place. The seventh planet from out Sun, Uranus is the third-largest in terms of size, the fourth-largest in terms of mass, and one of the least dense objects in our Solar System. And interestingly enough, it is the only planet in the Solar System that takes it name from Greek (rather than Roman) mythology.
But these basic facts really only begin to scratch the surface. When you get right down to it, Uranus is chock full of interesting and surprising details – from its many moons, to its ring system, and the composition of its aqua atmosphere. Here are just ten things about this gas/ice giant, and we guarantee that at least one of them will surprise you.