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.
Uranus, which takes its name from the Greek God of the sky, is a gas giant and the seventh planet from our Sun. It is also the third largest planet in our Solar System, ranking behind Jupiter and Saturn. Like its fellow gas giants, it has many moons, a ring system, and is primarily composed of gases that are believed to surround a solid core.
Though it can be seen with the naked eye, the realization that Uranus is a planet was a relatively recent one. Though there are indications that it was spotted several times over the course of the past two thousands years, it was not until the 18th century that it was recognized for what it was. Since that time, the full-extent of the planet’s moons, ring system, and mysterious nature have come to be known.
Discovery and Naming:
Like the five classic planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – Uranus can be seen without the aid of a telescope. But due to its dimness and slow orbit, ancient astronomers believed it to be a star. The earliest known observation was performed by Hipparchos, who recorded it as a star in his star catalog in 128 BCE – observations which were later included in Ptolemy’s Almagest.
The earliest definite sighting of Uranus took place in 1690 when English astronomer John Flamsteed – the first Astronomer Royal – spotted it at least six times and cataloged it as a star (34 Tauri). The French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier also observed it at least twelve times between the years of 1750 and 1769.
However, it was Sir William Herschel’s observation of Uranus on March 13th, 1781, that began the process of identifying it as a planet. At the time, he reported it as a comet sighting, but then engaged in a series of observations using a telescope of his own design to measure its position relative to the stars. When he reported on it to The Royal Society, he claimed it was a comet, but implicitly compared it to a planet.
Afterwards, several astronomers began to explore the possibility that Herschel’s “comet” was in fact a planet. These included Russian astronomer Anders Johan Lexell, who was the first to compute its nearly circular orbit, which led him to conclude it was a planet after all. Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode, a member of the “United Astronomical Society”, concurred with this after making similar observations of its orbit.
Soon, Uranus’ status as a planet became a scientific consensus, and by 1783, Herschel himself acknowledged this to the Royal Society. In recognition of his discovery, King George III of England gave Herschel an annual stipend of £200 on condition that he move to Windsor so that the Royal Family could look through his telescopes.
In honor of his new patron, William Herschel decided to name his discovery Georgium Sidus (“George’s Star” or “Georges Planet”). Outside of Britain, this name was not popular, and alternatives were soon proposed. These included French astronomer Jerome Lalande proposing to call it Hershel in honor of its discovery, and Swedish astronomer Erik Prosperin proposing the name Neptune.
Johann Elert Bode proposed the name Uranus, the Latinized version of the Greek god of the sky, Ouranos. This name seemed appropriate, given that Saturn was named after the mythical father of Jupiter, so this new planet should be named after the mythical father of Saturn. Ultimately, Bode’s suggestion became the most widely used and became universal by 1850.
Uranus’ Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of approximately 25,360 km, a volume of 6.833×1013 km3, and a mass of 8.68 × 1025 kg, Uranus is approximately 4 times the sizes of Earth and 63 times its volume. However, as a gas giant, its density (1.27 g/cm3) is significantly lower; hence, it is only 14.5 as massive as Earth. Its low density also means that while it is the third largest of the gas giants, it is the least massive (falling behind Neptune by 2.6 Earth masses).
The variation of Uranus’ distance from the Sun is also greater than that any other planet (not including dwarf planets or plutoids). Essentially, the gas giant’s distance from the Sun varies from 18.28 AU (2,735,118,100 km) at perihelion to 20.09 AU (3,006,224,700 km) at aphelion. At an average distance of 3 billion km from the Sun, it takes Uranus roughly 84 years (or 30,687 days) to complete a single orbit of the Sun.
The rotational period of the interior of Uranus is 17 hours, 14 minutes. As with all giant planets, its upper atmosphere experiences strong winds in the direction of rotation. At some latitudes, such as about 60 degrees south, visible features of the atmosphere move much faster, making a full rotation in as little as 14 hours.
One unique feature of Uranus is that it rotates on its side. Whereas all of the Solar System’s planets are tilted on their axes to some degree, Uranus has the most extreme axial tilt of 98°. This leads to the radical seasons that the planet experiences, not to mention an unusual day-night cycle at the poles. At the equator, Uranus experiences normal days and nights; but at the poles, each experience 42 Earth years of day followed by 42 years of night.
The standard model of Uranus’s structure is that it consists of three layers: a rocky (silicate/iron–nickel) core in the center, an icy mantle in the middle and an outer envelope of gaseous hydrogen and helium. Much like Jupiter and Saturn, hydrogen and helium account for the majority of the atmosphere – approximately 83% and 15% – but only a small portion of the planet’s overall mass (0.5 to 1.5 Earth masses).
The third most abundant element is methane ice (CH4), which accounts for 2.3% of its composition and which accounts for the planet’s aquamarine or cyan coloring. Trace amounts of various hydrocarbons are also found in the stratosphere of Uranus, which are thought to be produced from methane and ultraviolent radiation-induced photolysis. They include ethane (C2H6), acetylene (C2H2), methylacetylene (CH3C2H), and diacetylene (C2HC2H).
In addition, spectroscopy has uncovered carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in Uranus’ upper atmosphere, as well as the presence icy clouds of water vapor and other volatiles, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Because of this, Uranus and Neptune are considered a distinct class of giant planet – known as “Ice Giants” – since they are composed mainly of heavier volatile substances.
The ice mantle is not in fact composed of ice in the conventional sense, but of a hot and dense fluid consisting of water, ammonia and other volatiles. This fluid, which has a high electrical conductivity, is sometimes called a water–ammonia ocean.
The core of Uranus is relatively small, with a mass of only 0.55 Earth masses and a radius that is less than 20% of the planet’s overall size. The mantle comprises its bulk, with around 13.4 Earth masses, and the upper atmosphere is relatively insubstantial, weighing about 0.5 Earth masses and extending for the last 20% of Uranus’s radius.
Uranus’s core density is estimated to be 9 g/cm3, with a pressure in the center of 8 million bars (800 GPa) and a temperature of about 5000 K (which is comparable to the surface of the Sun).
As with Earth, the atmosphere of Uranus is broken into layers, depending upon temperature and pressure. Like the other gas giants, the planet doesn’t have a firm surface, and scientists define the surface as the region where the atmospheric pressure exceeds one bar (the pressure found on Earth at sea level). Anything accessible to remote-sensing capability – which extends down to roughly 300 km below the 1 bar level – is also considered to be the atmosphere.
Using these references points, Uranus’ atmosphere can be divided into three layers. The first is the troposphere, between altitudes of -300 km below the surface and 50 km above it, where pressures range from 100 to 0.1 bar (10 MPa to 10 kPa). The second layer is the stratosphere, which reaches between 50 and 4000 km and experiences pressures between 0.1 and 10-10 bar (10 kPa to 10 µPa).
The troposphere is the densest layer in Uranus’ atmosphere. Here, the temperature ranges from 320 K (46.85 °C/116 °F) at the base (-300 km) to 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at 50 km, with the upper region being the coldest in the solar system. The tropopause region is responsible for the vast majority of Uranus’s thermal infrared emissions, thus determining its effective temperature of 59.1 ± 0.3 K.
Within the troposphere are layers of clouds – water clouds at the lowest pressures, with ammonium hydrosulfide clouds above them. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide clouds come next. Finally, thin methane clouds lay on the top.
In the stratosphere, temperatures range from 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at the upper level to between 800 and 850 K (527 – 577 °C/980 – 1070 °F) at the base of the thermosphere, thanks largely to heating caused by solar radiation. The stratosphere contains ethane smog, which may contribute to the planet’s dull appearance. Acetylene and methane are also present, and these hazes help warm the stratosphere.
The outermost layer, the thermosphere and corona, extend from 4,000 km to as high as 50,000 km from the surface. This region has a uniform temperature of 800-850 (577 °C/1,070 °F), although scientists are unsure as to the reason. Because the distance to Uranus from the Sun is so great, the amount of heat coming from it is insufficient to generate such high temperatures.
Like Jupiter and Saturn, 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. As a result, 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).
Uranus has 27 known satellites, which are divided into the categories of larger moons, inner moons, and irregular moons (similar to other gas giants). The largest moons of Uranus are, in order of size, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Oberon and Titania. These moons range in diameter and mass from 472 km and 6.7 × 1019 kg for Miranda to 1578 km and 3.5 × 1021 kg for Titania. Each of these moons is particularly dark, with low bond and geometric albedos. Ariel is the brightest while Umbriel is the darkest.
All of the large moons of Uranus are believed to have formed in the accretion disc, which existed around Uranus for some time after its formation, or resulted from the large impact suffered by Uranus early in its history. Each one is comprised of roughly equal amounts of rock and ice, except for Miranda which is made primarily of ice.
The ice component may include ammonia and carbon dioxide, while the rocky material is believed to be composed of carbonaceous material, including organic compounds (similar to asteroids and comets). Their compositions are believed to be differentiated, with an icy mantle surrounding a rocky core.
In the case of Titania and Oberon, it is believed that liquid water oceans may exist at the core/mantle boundary. Their surfaces are also heavily cratered; but in each case, endogenic resurfacing has led to a degree of renewal of their features. Ariel appears to have the youngest surface with the fewest impact craters while Umbriel appears to be the the oldest and most cratered.
The major moons of Uranus have no discernible atmosphere. Also, because of their orbit around Uranus, they experience extreme seasonal cycles. Because Uranus orbits the Sun almost on its side, and the large moons all orbit around Uranus’ equatorial plane, the northern and southern hemispheres experience prolonged periods of daytime and nighttime (42 years at a time).
As of 2008, Uranus is known to possess 13 inner moons whose orbits lie inside that of Miranda. They are, in order of distance from the planet: Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Cressida, Desdemona, Juliet, Portia, Rosalind, Cupid, Belinda, Perdita, Puck and Mab. Consistent with the naming of the Uranus’ larger moons, all are named after characters from Shakespearean plays.
All inner moons are intimately connected to Uranus’ ring system, which probably resulted from the fragmentation of one or several small inner moons. Puck, at 162 km, is the largest of the inner moons of Uranus – and the only one imaged by Voyager 2 in any detail – while Puck and Mab are the two outermost inner satellites of Uranus.
All inner moons are dark objects. They are made of water ice contaminated with a dark material, which is probably organic materials processed by Uranus’ radiation. The system is also chaotic and apparently unstable. Computer simulations estimate that collisions may occur, particularly between Desdemona and Cressida or Juliet within the next 100 million years.
As of 2005, Uranus is also known to have nine irregular moons, which orbit it at a distance much greater than that of Oberon. All the irregular moons are probably captured objects that were trapped by Uranus soon after its formation. They are, in order of distance from Uranus: Francisco, Caliban, Stephano, Trincutio, Sycorax, Margaret, Prospero, Setebos, and Ferdinard (once again, named for characters in Shakespearean plays).
Uranus’s irregular moons range in size from about 150 km (Sycorax) to 18 km (Trinculo). With the exception of Margaret, all circle Uranus in retrograde orbits (meaning they orbit the planet in the opposite direction of its spin).
Uranus’ Ring System:
Like Saturn and Jupiter, Uranus has a ring system. However, these rings are composed of extremely dark particles which vary in size from micrometers to a fraction of a meter – hence why they are not nearly as discernible as Saturn’s. Thirteen distinct rings are presently known, the brightest being the epsilon ring. And with the exception of two very narrow ones, these rings usually measure a few kilometers in width.
The rings are probably quite young, and are not believed to have formed with Uranus. The matter in the rings may once have been part of a moon (or moons) that was shattered by high-speed impacts. From numerous pieces of debris that formed as a result of those impacts, only a few particles survived, in stable zones corresponding to the locations of the present rings.
The earliest known observations of the ring system took place on March 10th, 1977, by James L. Elliot, Edward W. Dunham, and Jessica Mink using the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. During an occultation of the star SAO 158687 (also known as HD 128598), they discerned five rings existing within a system around the planet, and observed four more later.
The rings were directly imaged when Voyager 2 passed Uranus in 1986, and the probe was able to detect two additional faint rings – bringing the number of observed rings to 11. In December 2005, the Hubble Space Telescope detected a pair of previously unknown rings, bringing the total to 13. The largest is located twice as far from Uranus as the previously known rings, hence why they are called the “outer” ring system.
In April 2006, images of the new rings from the Keck Observatory yielded the colors of the outer rings: the outermost is blue and the other one red. In contrast, Uranus’s inner rings appear grey. One hypothesis concerning the outer ring’s blue color is that it is composed of minute particles of water ice from the surface of Mab that are small enough to scatter blue light.
Uranus has only been visited once by any spacecraft: NASA’s Voyager 2 space probe, which flew past the planet in 1986. On January 24th, 1986, Voyager 2 passed within 81,500 km of the surface of the planet, sending back the only close up pictures ever taken of Uranus. Voyager 2 then continued on to make a close encounter with Neptune in 1989.
The possibility of sending the Cassini spacecraft from Saturn to Uranus was evaluated during a mission extension planning phase in 2009. However, this never came to fruition, as it would have taken about twenty years for Cassini to get to the Uranian system after departing Saturn.
In terms of future missions, multiple proposals have been made. For instance, a Uranus orbiter and probe was recommended by the 2013–2022 Planetary Science Decadal Survey published in 2011. This proposal envisaged a launch taking place between 2020–2023 and a 13-year cruise to Uranus. A New Frontiers Uranus Orbiter has been evaluated and was recommended in the study, The Case for a Uranus Orbiter. However, this mission is considered to be lower-priority than future missions to Mars and the Jovian System.
Scientists from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the United Kingdom have proposed a joint NASA-ESA mission to Uranus known as Uranus Pathfinder. This mission would involve launching a medium-class mission by 2022, and estimates place its cost at €470 million (~$525 million USD).
Another mission to Uranus, called Herschel Orbital Reconnaissance of the Uranian System (HORUS), was designed by the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. The proposal is for a nuclear-powered orbiter carrying a set of instruments, including an imaging camera, spectrometers and a magnetometer. The mission would launch in April 2021 and arrive at Uranus 17 years later.
In 2009, a team of planetary scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory advanced possible designs for a solar-powered Uranus orbiter. The most favorable launch window for such a probe would be in August 2018, with arrival at Uranus in September 2030. The science package may include magnetometers, particle detectors and, possibly, an imaging camera.
Suffice it to say, Uranus is a hard target when it comes to exploration, and its distance has made the process of observing it recognizing it for what it was problematic in the past. And in the future, with most of our mission focused on exploring Mars, Europa, and Near-Earth Asteroids, the prospect of a mission to this region of the Solar System doesn’t seem very likely.
But budget environments change, as do scientific priorities. And with interest in the Kuiper Belt exploding thanks to the discovery of many Trans-Neptunian Objects in recent years, it is entirely possible that scientists will demand that a mission to the out solar system be mounted. If and when one occurs, it may be possible to have the probe swing by Uranus on its way out, gathering information and pictures to help advance our understanding of this “Ice Giant”.
We have many interesting articles about Uranus here at Universe Today. We hope you find what you are looking for in the list below:
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.
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.
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!