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:

Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 29, 2016: Largest Solar System, Future Missions, and Remembering Our Lost Astronauts

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Carolyn Collins Petersen (thespacewriter.com / space.about.com / @spacewriter )
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Paul Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 29, 2016: Largest Solar System, Future Missions, and Remembering Our Lost Astronauts”

How Do Stars Go Rogue?

Rogue stars are moving so quickly they’re leaving the Milky Way, and never coming back. How in the Universe could this happen?

Stars are built with the lightest elements in the Universe, hydrogen and helium, but they contain an incomprehensible amount of mass. Our Sun is made of 2 x 10^30 kgs of stuff. That’s a 2 followed by 30 zeros. That’s 330,000 times more stuff than the Earth.

You would think it’d be a bit of challenge to throw around something that massive, but there are events in the Universe which are so catastrophic, they can kick a star so hard in the pills that it hits galactic escape velocity.

Rogue, or hypervelocity stars are moving so quickly they’re leaving the Milky Way, and never coming back. They’ve got a one-way ticket to galactic voidsville. The velocity needed depends on the location, you’d need to be traveling close to 500 kilometers per second. That’s more than twice the speed the Solar System is going as it orbits the centre of the Milky Way.

There are a few ways you can generate enough kick to fire a star right out of the park. They tend to be some of the most extreme events and locations in the Universe. Like Supernovae, and their big brothers, gamma ray bursts.

Supernovae occur when a massive star runs out of hydrogen, keeps fusing up the periodic table of elements until it reaches iron. Because iron doesn’t allow it to generate any energy, the star’s gravity collapses it. In a fraction of a second, the star detonates, and anything nearby is incinerated. But what if you happen to be in a binary orbit with a star that suddenly vaporizes in a supernova explosion?

That companion star is flung outward with tremendous velocity, like it was fired from a sling, clocking up to 1,200 km/s. That’s enough velocity to escape the pull of the Milky Way. Huzzah! Onward, to adventure! Ahh, crap… please do not be pointed at the Earth?

This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A.
This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A.

Another way to blast a star out of the Milky Way is by flying it too close to Kevin, the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy.

And for the bonus round, astronomers recently discovered stars rocketing away from the galactic core as fast as 900 km/s. It’s believed that these travelers were actually part of a binary system. Their partner was consumed by the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, and the other is whipped out of the galaxy in a gravitational jai halai scoop.

Interestingly, the most common way to get flung out of your galaxy occurs in a galactic collision. Check out this animation of two galaxies banging together. See the spray of stars flung out in long tidal tails? Billions of stars will get ejected when the Milky Way hammers noodle first into Andromeda.

A recent study suggests half the stars in the Universe are rogue stars, with no galaxies of their own. Either kicked out of their host galaxy, or possibly formed from a cloud of hydrogen gas, flying out in the void. They are also particularly dangerous to Carol Danvers.

Considering the enormous mass of a star, it’s pretty amazing that there are events so catastrophic they can kick entire stars right out of our own galaxy.

What do you think life would be like orbiting a hypervelocity star? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Why is Everything Spherical?

Have you ever noticed that everything in space is a sphere? The Sun, the Earth, the Moon and the other planets and their moons… all spheres. Except for the stuff which isn’t spheres. What’s going on?

Have you noticed that a good portion of things in space are shaped like a sphere? Stars, planets, and moons are all spherical.

Why? It all comes down to gravity. All the atoms in an object pull towards a common center of gravity, and they’re resisted outwards by whatever force is holding them apart. The final result could be a sphere… but not always, as we’re about to learn.

Consider a glass of water. If you could see the individual molecules jostling around, you’d see them trying to fit in as snugly as they can, tension making the top of the water smooth and even.

Imagine a planet made entirely of water. If there were no winds, it would be perfectly smooth. The water molecules on the north pole are pulling towards the molecules on the south pole. The ones on the left are pulling towards the right. With all points pulling towards the center of the mass you would get a perfect sphere.

Gravity and surface tension pull it in, and molecular forces are pushing it outward. If you could hold this massive water droplet in an environment where it would remain undisturbed, eventually the water would reach a perfect balance. This is known as “hydrostatic equilibrium”.

Stars, planets and moons can be made of gas, ice or rock. Get enough mass in one area, and it’s going to pull all that stuff into a roughly spherical shape. Less massive objects, such as asteroids, comets, and smaller moons have less gravity, so they may not pull into perfect spheres.

UT Jupiter Oval BA Chris Go
Jupiter Credit: Christopher Go

As you know, most of the celestial bodies we’ve mentioned rotate on an axis, and guess what, those ones aren’t actually spheres either. The rapid rotation flattens out the middle, and makes them wider across the equator than from pole to pole. Earth is perfect example of this, and we call its shape an oblate spheroid.

Jupiter is even more flattened because it spins more rapidly. A day on Jupiter is a short 9.9 hours long. Which leaves it a distorted imperfect sphere at 71,500 km across the equator and just 66,900 from pole to pole.

Stars are similar. Our Sun rotates slowly, so it’s almost a perfect sphere, but there are stars out there that spin very, very quickly. VFTS 102, a giant star in the Tarantula nebula is spinning 100 times faster than the Sun. Any faster and it would tear itself apart from centripetal forces.

This oblate spheroid shape helps indicate why there are lots of flattened disks out there. This rapid spinning, where centripetal forces overcome gravitational attraction that creates this shape. You can see it in black hole accretion disks, solar systems, and galaxies.

Objects tend to form into spheres. If they’re massive enough, they’ll overcome the forces preventing it. But… if they’re spinning rapidly enough, they’ll flatten out all the way into disks.