What’s the most interesting fact you know about Uranus? The fact that its rotational axis is completely out of line with every other planet in the solar system? Or the fact that Uranus’ magnetosphere is asymmetrical, notably tilted relative to its rotational axis, and significantly offset from the center of the planet? Or the fact that it’s moons are all named after characters from Shakespeare or Alexander Pope?
All of those facts (with the exception of the literary references) have come from a very limited dataset. Some of the best data was collected during a Voyager 2 flyby in 1986. Since then, the only new data has come from Earth-based telescopes. While they’ve been steadily increasing in resolution, they have only been able to scratch the surface of what may be lurking in the system surrounding the closest Ice Giant. Hopefully that is about to change, as a team of scientists has published a white paper advocating for a visit from a new Flagship class spacecraft.
Astronomers think they know how Uranus got flipped onto its side. According to detailed computer simulations, a body about twice the size of Earth slammed into Uranus between 3 to 4 billion years ago. The impact created an oddity in our Solar System: the only planet that rotates on its side.
A study explaining these findings was presented at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting in Washington DC held between December 10th to 14th. It’s led by Jacob Kegerreis, a researcher at Durham University. It builds on previous studies pointing to an impact as the cause of Uranus’ unique orientation. Taken altogether, we’re getting a clearer picture of why Uranus rotates on its side compared to the other planets in our Solar System. The impact also explains why Uranus is unique in other ways. Continue reading “Something Twice the Size of Earth Slammed into Uranus and Knocked it Over on its Side”
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.
Like splitting double stars, hunting for the faint lesser known moons of the solar system offers a supreme challenge for the visual observer.
Sure, you’ve seen the Jovian moons do their dance, and Titan is old friend for many a star party patron as they check out the rings of Saturn… but have you ever spotted Triton or Amalthea?
Welcome to the challenging world of moon-spotting. Discovering these moons for yourself can be an unforgettable thrill.
One of the key challenges in spotting many of the fainter moons is the fact that they lie so close inside the glare of their respective host planet. For example, +11th magnitude Phobos wouldn’t be all that tough on its own, were it not for the fact that it always lies close to dazzling Mars. 10 magnitudes equals a 10,000-fold change in brightness, and the fact that most of these moons are swapped out is what makes them so tough to see. This is also why many of them weren’t discovered until later on.
But don’t despair. One thing you can use that’s relatively easy to construct is an occulting bar eyepiece. This will allow you to hide the dazzle of the planet behind the bar while scanning the suspect area to the side for the faint moon. Large aperture, steady skies, and well collimated optics are a must as well, and don’t be afraid to crank up the magnification in your quest. We mentioned using such a technique previously as a method to tease out the white dwarf star Sirius b in the years to come.
What follows is a comprehensive list of the well known ‘easy ones,’ along with some challenges.
We included a handy drill down of magnitudes, orbital periods and maximum separations for the moons of each planet right around opposition. For the more difficult moons, we also noted the circumstances of their discovery, just to give the reader some idea what it takes to see these fleeting worlds. Remember though, many of those old scopes used speculum metal mirrors which were vastly inferior to commercial optics available today. You may have a large Dobsonian scope available that rivals these scopes of yore!
Mars- The two tiny moons of Mars are a challenge, as it’s only possible to nab them visually near opposition, which occurs about once every 26 months. Mars next reaches opposition on May 22nd, 2016.
Orbital period: 7 hours 39 minutes
Maximum separation: 16”
Orbital period: 1 day 6 hours and 20 minutes
Maximum separation: 54”
The moons of Mars were discovered by American astronomer Asaph Hall during the favorable 1877 opposition of Mars using the 26-inch refracting telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Jupiter- Though the largest planet in our solar system also has the largest number of moons at 67, only the four bright Galilean moons are easily observable, although owners of large light buckets might just be able to tease out another two. Jupiter next reaches opposition March 8th, 2016.
Orbital period: 7.2 days
Maximum separation: 5’
Orbital period: 16.7 days
Maximum separation: 9’
Orbital period: 1.8 days
Maximum separation: 1’ 50”
Orbital period: 3.6 days
Maximum separation: 3’
Orbital period: 11 hours 57 minutes
Maximum separation: 33”
Orbital period: 250.2 days
Maximum separation: 52’
Note that Amalthea was the first of Jupiter’s moons discovered after the four Galilean moons. Amalthea was first spotted in 1892 by E. E. Barnard using the 36” refractor at the Lick Observatory. Himalia was also discovered at Lick by Charles Dillon Perrine in 1904.
Saturn- With a total number of moons at 62, six moons of Saturn are easily observable with a backyard telescope, though keen-eyed observers might just be able to tease out another two:
(Note: the listed separation from the moons of Saturn is from the limb of the disk, not the rings).
Orbital period: 16 days
Maximum separation: 3’
Orbital period: 4.5 days
Maximum separation: 1’ 12”
Magnitude: (variable) +10.2 to +11.9
Orbital period: 79 days
Maximum separation: 9’
Orbital period: 1.4 days
Maximum separation: 27″
Orbital period: 2.7 days
Maximum separation: 46”
Orbital period: 1.9 days
Maximum separation: 35”
Orbital period: 0.9 days
Maximum separation: 18”
Orbital period: 21.3 days
Maximum separation: 3’ 30”
Orbital period: 541 days
Maximum separation: 27’
Hyperion was discovered by William Bond using the Harvard observatory’s 15” refractor in 1848, and Phoebe was the first moon discovered photographically by William Pickering in 1899.
Uranus- All of the moons of the ice giants are tough. Though Uranus has a total of 27 moons, only five of them might be spied using a backyard scope. Uranus next reaches opposition on October 12th, 2015.
Maximum separation: 28”
Orbital period: 8.7 days
Maximum separation: 40”
Orbital period: 4.1 days
Maximum separation: 15”
Orbital period: 2.5 days
Maximum separation: 13”
Orbital period: 1.4 days
Maximum separation: 9”
The first two moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon, were discovered by William Herschel in 1787 using his 49.5” telescope, the largest of its day.
Neptune- With a total number of moons numbering 14, two are within reach of the skilled amateur observer. Opposition for Neptune is coming right up on September 1st, 2015.
Orbital period: 5.9 days
Maximum separation: 15”
Orbital period: 0.3 days
Maximum separation: 6’40”
Triton was discovered by William Lassell using a 24” reflector in 1846, just 17 days after the discovery of Neptune itself. Nereid wasn’t found until 1949 by Gerard Kuiper.
In order to cross off some of the more difficult targets on the list, you’ll need to know exactly when these moons are at their greatest elongation. Sky and Telescope has some great apps in the case of Jupiter and Saturn… the PDS Rings node can also generate corkscrew charts of lesser known moons, and Starry Night has ‘em as well. In addition, we tend to publish cork screw charts for moons right around respective oppositions, and our ephemeris for Charon elongations though July 2015 is still active.
Good luck in crossing off some of these faint moons from your astronomical life list!
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.
Up for a challenge? Got a big 12” light bucket of a Dobsonian telescope and looking for something new to point it at? This week, as the Moon reaches New phase on October 4th and stays safely out of the late evening sky, why not check out Uranus and its retinue of moons. And yes, we’ve heard just about ALL the Uranus jokes —its pronouncedyer-in-us, thank you very much — but feel free to attempt to pen an original if you must.
Now, back to astronomy. Uranus reaches opposition for 2013 on Thursday, October 3rd at 14:00 Universal Time. Opposition is the point in time that an outer planet rises as the Sun sets. In the case of Uranus, its opposition dates advance forward by about 4-5 days each year.
This also marks the start of the best time to hunt for the planet among the star fields of the constellation Pisces. Uranus will reach its maximum elevation above the southern horizon for northern hemisphere viewers for early October around local midnight. For observers south of the equator, Uranus will transit to the north. Incidentally, Uranus also currently sits near the equinoctial point occupied by the Sun during the March equinox, making viewing opportunities nearly equal for both hemispheres.
Uranus is 19.04 astronomical units distant during opposition 2013, or about 158 light minutes away. Shining at magnitude +5.8, Uranus presents a tiny blue-green disk just under 4” across at opposition.
Uranus currently lies six degrees SW of the +4.4 magnitude star Delta Piscium, on the border of the constellations Pisces and Cetus. Uranus will actually be crossing once again into the non-zodiacal constellation of Cetus later this year.
Discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, Uranus has only completed 2 full orbits (2.75 to be precise) in its 84.3 year trips about the Sun. We can be thankful that William’s proposal to name the planet Geogium Sidus after his benefactor King George the III didn’t stick!
At opposition, Uranus will be located at;
Right Ascension: 0h 40’
Declination: +3° 25’
Five of the 27 known moons of Uranus are also within the grasp of a moderate-sized backyard scope as well. The trick is to catch ‘em near greatest elongation, when they appear farthest from the “glare of Uranus” (hey, there’s a freebie for a snicker or two). An eyepiece equipped with an occulting bar, or simply nudging Uranus out of the field of view can also help.
With magnitudes ranging from +13 to +16, the moons of Uranus are similar in brightness to Neptune’s large moon Triton or the tiny world Pluto.
The five brightest moons of Uranus and their respective maximum elongations are:
And here’s a handy finder chart for the coming month, showing maximum elongations for each:
The first two moons were named Titania and Oberon by William’s son John after characters from William Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. William discovered the first two moons of Uranus on the night of January 11th, 1787 using his 49.5” reflector. His scopes were so advanced for his day, that it wasn’t until over a half a century later that William Lassell discovered Umbriel and Ariel using the Liverpool Observatory’s 24” reflector in 1851.
Gerard Kuiper would later add tiny Miranda to the list, nabbing it with the McDonald Observatory’s 82” Otto Struve Telescope in 1948. We would then have to wait until Voyager 2’s 1986 flyby of Uranus in 1986 to add more. To date, Voyager 2 remains the only spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune.
The current convention established by the International Astronomical Union is to name the moons of Uranus after characters from the plays of Shakespeare or Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock.
There’s still a wide range of names in said literature to choose from!
It’s interesting to note that the orbits of the moons of Uranus are also currently tipped open about 25 degrees to our line of sight and widening. They were edge on in December 2007, and will be perpendicular to our Earthly view come 2029, after which they’ll head back to edge on in 2049. This is because Uranus and the orbits of its moons are tipped at a 97 degree angle relative to the planet’s orbit. This is why elongations for its moons are often quoted it terms of “north and south” of the planet, rather than the familiar east and west. Shadow transits of the moons can occur with about a year and a half during plane-crossing seasons, but they’re ~42 years apart and tough to spot on the tiny disk of Uranus!
Uranus also reached aphelion in 2009 at 20.099 AU from the Sun —we’re still at the farther end of the spectrum, as oppositions of Uranus can range from 19.09 to 17.28 AU distant.
Uranus will rise earlier on each successive evening until it reaches quadrature at the end of the year on December 30th. At this point, it’ll be roughly due south at local sunset. Keep in mind, there’s also another ice giant worth hunting for in the adjacent constellation of Aquarius named Neptune.
So ignore those bad puns, and be sure to take out that 10” (scope, that is) and point it at Uranus!