Like Earth, Uranus and Neptune have season and experience changes in weather patterns as a result. But unlike Earth, the seasons on these planets last for years rather than months, and weather patterns occur on a scale that is unimaginable by Earth standards. A good example is the storms that have been observed in Neptune and Uranus’ atmosphere, which include Neptune’s famous Great Dark Spot.
During its yearly routine of monitoring Uranus and Neptune, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) recently provided updated observations of both planets’ weather patterns. In addition to spotting a new and mysterious storm on Neptune, Hubble provided a fresh look at a long-lived storm around Uranus’ north pole. These observations are part of Hubble‘s long-term mission to improve our understanding of the outer planets.
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”
The gas/ice giant Uranus has long been a source of mystery to astronomers. In addition to presenting some thermal anomalies and a magnetic field that is off-center, the planet is also unique in that it is the only one in the Solar System to rotate on its side. With an axial tilt of 98°, the planet experiences radical seasons and a day-night cycle at the poles where a single day and night last 42 years each.
Thanks to a new study led by researchers from Durham University, the reason for these mysteries may finally have been found. With the help of NASA researchers and multiple scientific organizations, the team conducted simulations that indicated how Uranus may have suffered a massive impact in its past. Not only would this account for the planet’s extreme tilt and magnetic field, it would also explain why the planet’s outer atmosphere is so cold.
“Uranus spins on its side, with its axis pointing almost at right angles to those of all the other planets in the solar system. This was almost certainly caused by a giant impact, but we know very little about how this actually happened and how else such a violent event affected the planet.”
To determine how a giant impact would affect Uranus, the team conducted a suite of smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH) simulations, which were also used in the past to model the giant impact that led to the formation of the Moon (aka. the Giant Impact Theory). All told, the team ran more than 50 different impact scenarios using a high-powered computer to see if it would recreate the conditions that shaped Uranus.
In the end, the simulations confirmed that Uranus’ tilted position was caused by a collision with a massive object (between two and three Earth masses) that took place roughly 4 billion years ago – i.e. during the formation of the Solar System. This was consistent with a previous study that indicated that an impact with a young proto-planet made of rock and ice could have been responsible for Uranus’ axial tilt.
“Our findings confirm that the most likely outcome was that the young Uranus was involved in a cataclysmic collision with an object twice the mass of Earth, if not larger, knocking it on to its side and setting in process the events that helped create the planet we see today,” said Kegerries.
In addition, the simulations answered a fundamental questions about Uranus that was raised in response to previous studies. Essentially, scientists have wondered how Uranus could retain its atmosphere after a violent collision, which would have theoretically blown off its out layers of hydrogen and helium gas. According to the team’s simulations, this was most likely because the impact struck a grazing a blow on Uranus.
This would have been enough to alter Uranus’ tilt, but was not strong enough to remove its outer atmosphere. In addition, their simulations indicated that the impact could have jettisoned rock and ice into orbit around the planet. This could then have coalesced to form the planet’s inner satellites and altered the rotation of any pre-existing moons already in orbit around Uranus.
Last, but not least, the simulations offered a possible explanation for how Uranus got its off-center magnetic field and its thermal anomalies. In short, the impact could have created molten ice and lopsided lumps of rock inside the planet (thus accounting for its magnetic field). It could have also created a thin shell of debris near the edge of the planet’s ice layer which would have trapped internal heat, which could explain why Uranus’ outer atmosphere experiences extremely cold temperatures of -216 °C (-357 °F).
Beyond helping astronomers to understand Uranus, one of the least-understood planets in the Solar System, the study also has implications when it comes to the study of exoplanets. So far, most of the planets discovered in other star systems have been comparable in size and mass to Uranus. As such, the researchers hope their findings will shed light on these planet’s chemical compositions and explain how they evolved.
As Dr. Luis Teodoro – of the BAER Institute and NASA Ames Research Center – and one of the co-authors on the paper, said, “All the evidence points to giant impacts being frequent during planet formation, and with this kind of research we are now gaining more insight into their effect on potentially habitable exoplanets.”
In the coming years, additional missions are planned to study the outer Solar System and the giant planets. These studies will not only help astronomers understand how our Solar System evolved, they could also tell us what role gas giants play when it comes to habitability.
For more than three decades, the internal structure and evolution of Uranus and Neptune has been a subject of debate among scientists. Given their distance from Earth and the fact that only a few robotic spacecraft have studied them directly, what goes on inside these ice giants is still something of a mystery. In lieu of direct evidence, scientists have relied on models and experiments to replicate the conditions in their interiors.
For instance, it has been theorized that within Uranus and Neptune, the extreme pressure conditions squeeze hydrogen and carbon into diamonds, which then sink down into the interior. Thanks to an experiment conducted by an international team of scientists, this “diamond rain” was recreated under laboratory conditions for the first time, giving us the first glimpse into what things could be like inside ice giants.
For decades, scientists have held that the interiors of planets like Uranus and Neptune consist of solid cores surrounded by a dense concentrations of “ices”. In this case, ice refers to hydrogen molecules connected to lighter elements (i.e. as carbon, oxygen and/or nitrogen) to create compounds like water and ammonia. Under extreme pressure conditions, these compounds become semi-solid, forming “slush”.
And at roughly 10,000 kilometers (6214 mi) beneath the surface of these planets, the compression of hydrocarbons is thought to create diamonds. To recreate these conditions, the international team subjected a sample of polystyrene plastic to two shock waves using an intense optical laser at the Matter in Extreme Conditions (MEC) instrument, which they then paired with x-ray pulses from the SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS).
“So far, no one has been able to directly observe these sparkling showers in an experimental setting. In our experiment, we exposed a special kind of plastic – polystyrene, which also consists of a mix of carbon and hydrogen – to conditions similar to those inside Neptune or Uranus.”
The plastic in this experiment simulated compounds formed from methane, a molecule that consists of one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms. It is the presence of this compound that gives both Uranus and Neptune their distinct blue coloring. In the intermediate layers of these planets, it also forms hydrocarbon chains that are compressed into diamonds that could be millions of karats in weight.
The optical laser the team employed created two shock waves which accurately simulated the temperature and pressure conditions at the intermediate layers of Uranus and Neptune. The first shock was smaller and slower, and was then overtaken by the stronger second shock. When they overlapped, the pressure peaked and tiny diamonds began to form. At this point, the team probed the reactions with x-ray pulses from the LCLS.
This technique, known as x-ray diffraction, allowed the team to see the small diamonds form in real-time, which was necessary since a reaction of this kind can only last for fractions of a second. As Siegfried Glenzer, a professor of photon science at SLAC and a co-author of the paper, explained:
“For this experiment, we had LCLS, the brightest X-ray source in the world. You need these intense, fast pulses of X-rays to unambiguously see the structure of these diamonds, because they are only formed in the laboratory for such a very short time.”
In the end, the research team found that nearly every carbon atom in the original plastic sample was incorporated into small diamond structures. While they measured just a few nanometers in diameter, the team predicts that on Uranus and Neptune, the diamonds would be much larger. Over time, they speculate that these could sink into the planets’ atmospheres and form a layer of diamond around the core.
In previous studies, attempts to recreate the conditions in Uranus and Neptune’s interior met with limited success. While they showed results that indicated the formation of graphite and diamonds, the teams conducting them could not capture the measurements in real-time. As noted, the extreme temperatures and pressures that exist within gas/ice giants can only be simulated in a laboratory for very short periods of time.
However, thanks to LCLS – which creates X-ray pulses a billion times brighter than previous instruments and fires them at a rate of about 120 pulses per second (each one lasting just quadrillionths of a second) – the science team was able to directly measure the chemical reaction for the first time. In the end, these results are of particular significance to planetary scientists who specialize in the study of how planets form and evolve.
As Kraus explained, it could cause to rethink the relationship between a planet’s mass and its radius, and lead to new models of planet classification:
“With planets, the relationship between mass and radius can tell scientists quite a bit about the chemistry. And the chemistry that happens in the interior can provide additional information about some of the defining features of the planet… We can’t go inside the planets and look at them, so these laboratory experiments complement satellite and telescope observations.”
This experiment also opens new possibilities for matter compression and the creation of synthetic materials. Nanodiamonds currently have many commercial applications – i.e. medicine, electronics, scientific equipment, etc, – and creating them with lasers would be far more cost-effective and safe than current methods (which involve explosives).
Fusion research, which also relies on creating extreme pressure and temperature conditions to generate abundant energy, could also benefit from this experiment. On top of that, the results of this study offer a tantalizing hint at what the cores of massive planets look like. In addition to being composed of silicate rock and metals, ice giants may also have a diamond layer at their core-mantle boundary.
Assuming we can create probes of sufficiently strong super-materials someday, wouldn’t that be worth looking into?
Between the planets of the inner and outer Solar System, there are some stark differences. The planets that resides closer to the Sun are terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature, meaning that they are composed of silicate minerals and metals. Beyond the Asteroid Belt, however, the planets are predominantly composed of gases, and are much larger than their terrestrial peers.
This is why astronomers use the term “gas giants” when referring to the planets of the outer Solar System. The more we’ve come to know about these four planets, the more we’ve come to understand that no two gas giants are exactly alike. In addition, ongoing studies of planets beyond our Solar System (aka. “extra-solar planets“) has shown that there are many types of gas giants that do not conform to Solar examples. So what exactly is a “gas giant”?
Definition and Classification:
By definition, a gas giant is a planet that is primarily composed of hydrogen and helium. The name was originally coined in 1952 by James Blish, a science fiction writer who used the term to refer to all giant planets. In truth, the term is something of a misnomer, since these elements largely take a liquid and solid form within a gas giant, as a result of the extreme pressure conditions that exist within the interior.
What’s more, gas giants are also thought to have large concentrations of metal and silicate material in their cores. Nevertheless, the term has remained in popular usage for decades and refers to all planets – be they Solar or extra-solar in nature – that are composed mainly of gases. It is also in keeping with the practice of planetary scientists, who use a shorthand – i.e. “rock”, “gas”, and “ice” – to classify planets based on the most common element within them.
Hence the difference between Jupiter and Saturn on the one and, and Uranus and Neptune on the other. Due to the high concentrations of volatiles (such as water, methane and ammonia) within the latter two – which planetary scientists classify as “ices” – these two giant planets are often called “ice giants”. But since they are composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, they are still considered gas giants alongside Jupiter and Saturn.
Today, Gas giants are divided into five classes, based on the classification scheme proposed by David Sudarki (et al.) in a 2000 study. Titled “Albedo and Reflection Spectra of Extrasolar Giant Planets“, Sudarsky and his colleagues designated five different types of gas giant based on their appearances and albedo, and how this is affected by their respective distances from their star.
Class I: Ammonia Clouds – this class applies to gas giants whose appearances are dominated by ammonia clouds, and which are found in the outer regions of a planetary system. In other words, it applies only to planets that are beyond the “Frost Line”, the distance in a solar nebula from the central protostar where volatile compounds – i.e. water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide – condense into solid ice grains.
Class II: Water Clouds – this applies to planets that have average temperatures typically below 250 K (-23 °C; -9 °F), and are therefore too warm to form ammonia clouds. Instead, these gas giants have clouds that are formed from condensed water vapor. Since water is more reflective than ammonia, Class II gas giants have higher albedos.
Class III: Cloudless – this class applies to gas giants that are generally warmer – 350 K (80 °C; 170 °F) to 800 K ( 530 °C; 980 °F) – and do not form cloud cover because they lack the necessary chemicals. These planets have low albedos since they do not reflect as much light into space. These bodies would also appear like clear blue globes because of the way methane in their atmospheres absorbs light (like Uranus and Neptune).
Class IV: Alkali Metals – this class of planets experience temperatures in excess of 900 K (627 °C; 1160 °F), at which point Carbon Monoxide becomes the dominant carbon-carrying molecule in their atmospheres (rather than methane). The abundance of alkali metals also increases substantially, and cloud decks of silicates and metals form deep in their atmospheres. Planets belonging to Class IV and V are referred to as “Hot Jupiters”.
Class V: Silicate Clouds – this applies to the hottest of gas giants, with temperatures above 1400 K (1100 °C; 2100 °F), or cooler planets with lower gravity than Jupiter. For these gas giants, the silicate and iron cloud decks are believed to be high up in the atmosphere. In the case of the former, such gas giants are likely to glow red from thermal radiation and reflected light.
The study of exoplanets has also revealed a wealth of other types of gas giants that are more massive than the Solar counterparts (aka. Super-Jupiters) as well as many that are comparable in size. Other discoveries have been a fraction of the size of their solar counterparts, while some have been so massive that they are just shy of becoming a star. However, given their distance from Earth, their spectra and albedo have cannot always be accurately measured.
As such, exoplanet-hunters tend to designate extra-solar gas giants based on their apparent sizes and distances from their stars. In the case of the former, they are often referred to as “Super-Jupiters”, Jupiter-sized, and Neptune-sized. To date, these types of exoplanet account for the majority of discoveries made by Kepler and other missions, since their larger sizes and greater distances from their stars makes them the easiest to detect.
In terms of their respective distances from their sun, exoplanet-hunters divide extra-solar gas giants into two categories: “cold gas giants” and “hot Jupiters”. Typically, cold hydrogen-rich gas giants are more massive than Jupiter but less than about 1.6 Jupiter masses, and will only be slightly larger in volume than Jupiter. For masses above this, gravity will cause the planets to shrink.
Exoplanet surveys have also turned up a class of planet known as “gas dwarfs”, which applies to hydrogen planets that are not as large as the gas giants of the Solar System. These stars have been observed to orbit close to their respective stars, causing them to lose atmospheric mass faster than planets that orbit at greater distances.
For gas giants that occupy the mass range between 13 to 75-80 Jupiter masses, the term “brown dwarf” is used. This designation is reserved for the largest of planetary/substellar objects; in other words, objects that are incredibly large, but not quite massive enough to undergo nuclear fusion in their core and become a star. Below this range are sub-brown dwarfs, while anything above are known as the lightest red dwarf (M9 V) stars.
Like all things astronomical in nature, gas giants are diverse, complex, and immensely fascinating. Between missions that seek to examine the gas giants of our Solar System directly to increasingly sophisticated surveys of distant planets, our knowledge of these mysterious objects continues to grow. And with that, so is our understanding of how star systems form and evolve.
Now, let’s look and see what missions are planned for the outer planets of the Solar System, especially Uranus and Neptune. Oh, that’s so sad… there’s nothing.
It’s been decades since humanity had an up close look at Uranus and Neptune. For Uranus, it was Voyager 2, which swept through the system in 1986. We got just a few tantalizing photographs of the ice giant planet and it’s moons.
What’s going on there?
What are those strange features? Sorry, insufficient data.
And then Voyager 2 did the same, zipping past Neptune in 1989.
Check this out.
What’s going here on Triton? Wouldn’t you like to know more? Well, too bad! You can’t it’s done, that’s all you get.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’ve studied all these other worlds. I’m glad we’ve had orbiters at Mercury, Venus, everything at Mars, Jupiter, and especially Saturn. We’ve seen Ceres and Vesta, and the Moon up close. We even got a flyby of Pluto and Charon.
It’s time to go back to Uranus and Neptune, this time to stay.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Scientists at NASA recently published a report called the Ice Giant Mission Study, and it’s all about various missions that could be sent to explore Uranus, Neptune and their fascinating moons.
The team of scientists who worked on the study considered a range of potential missions to the ice giants, and in the end settled on four potential missions; three that could go to Uranus, and one headed for Neptune. Each of them would cost roughly $2 billion.
Uranus is closer, easier to get to, and the obvious first destination of a targeted mission. For Uranus, NASA considered three probes.
The first idea is a flyby mission, which will sweep past Uranus gathering as much science as it can. This is what Voyager 2 did, and more recently what NASA’s New Horizons did at Pluto. In addition, it would have a separate probe, like the Cassini and Galileo missions, that would detach and go into the atmosphere to sample the composition below the cloudtops. The mission would be heavy and require an Atlas V rocket with the same configuration that sent Curiosity to Mars. The flight time would take 10 years.
The main science goal of this mission would be to study the composition of Uranus. It would make some other measurements of the system as it passed through, but it would just be a glimpse. Better than Voyager, but nothing like Cassini’s decade plus observations of Saturn.
I like where this is going, but I’m going to hold out for something better.
The next idea is an orbiter. Now we’re talking! It would have all the same instruments as the flyby and the detachable probe. But because it would be an orbiter, it would require much more propellant. It would have triple the launch mass of the flyby mission, which means a heavier Atlas V rocket. And a slightly longer flight time; 12 years instead of 10 for the flyby.
Because it would remain at Uranus for at least 3 years, it would be able to do an extensive analysis of the planet and its rings and moons. But because of the atmospheric probe, it wouldn’t have enough mass for more instruments. It would have more time at Uranus, but not a much better set of tools to study it with.
Okay, let’s keep going. The next idea is an orbiter, but without the detachable probe. Instead, it’ll have the full suite of 15 scientific instruments, to study Uranus from every angle. We’re talking visible, doppler, infrared, ultraviolet, thermal, dust, and a fancy wide angle camera to give us those sweet planetary pictures we like to see.
Study Uranus? Yes please. But while we’re at it, let’s also sent a spacecraft to Neptune.
As part of the Ice Giants Study, the researchers looked at what kind of missions would be possible. In this case, they settled on a single recommended mission. A huge orbiter with an additional atmospheric probe. This mission would be almost twice as massive as the heaviest Uranus mission, so it would need a Delta IV Heavy rocket to even get out to Neptune.
As it approached Neptune, the mission would release an atmospheric probe to descend beneath the cloudtops and sample what’s down there. The orbiter would then spend an additional 2 years in the environment of Neptune, studying the planet and its moons and rings. It would give us a chance to see its fascinating moon Triton up close, which seems to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object.
Unfortunately there’s no perfect grand tour trajectory available to us any more, where a single spacecraft could visit all the large planets in the Solar System. Missions to Uranus and Neptune will have to be separate, however, if NASA’s Space Launch System gets going, it could carry probes for both destinations and launch them together.
The goal of these missions is the science. We want to understand the ice giants of the outer Solar System, which are quite different from both the inner terrestrial planets and the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.
The gas giants are mostly hydrogen and helium, like the Sun. But the ice giants are 65% water and other ices made from methane and ammonia. But it’s not like they’re big blobs of water, or even frozen water. Because of their huge gravity, the ice giants crush this material with enormous pressure and temperature.
What happens when you crush water under this much pressure? It would all depend on the temperature and pressure. There could be different types of ice down there. At one level, it could be an electrically conductive soup of hydrogen and oxygen, and then further down, you might get crystallized oxygen with hydrogen ions running through it.
Hailstones made of diamond could form out of the carbon-rich methane and fall down through the layers of the planets, settling within a molten carbon core. What I’m saying is, it could be pretty strange down there.
We know that ice giants are common in the galaxy, in fact, they’ve made up the majority of the extrasolar planets discovered so far. By better understanding the ones we have right here in our own Solar System, we can get a sense of the distant extrasolar planets turning up. We’ll be better able to distinguish between the super earths and mini-neptunes.
Another big question is how these planets formed in the first place. In their current models, most planetary astronomers think these planets had very short time windows to form. They needed to have massive enough cores to scoop up all that material before the newly forming Sun’s solar wind blasted it all out into space. And yet, why are these kinds of planets so common in the Universe?
The NASA mission planners developed a total of 12 science objectives for these missions, focusing on the composition of the planets and their atmospheres. And if there’s time, they’d like to know about how heat moves around, their constellations of rings and moons. They’d especially like to investigate Neptune’s moons Triton, which looks like a captured Kuiper Belt Object, as it orbits in the reverse direction from all the other moons in the Solar System.
In terms of science, the two worlds are very similar. But because Neptune has Triton. If I had to choose, I’d go with a Neptune mission.
Are you excited? I’m excited. Here’s the bad news. According to NASA, the best launch windows for these missions would be 2029 or 2034. And that’s just the launch time, the flight time is an additional decade or more on top of that. In other words, the first photos from a Uranus flyby could happen in 2039 or 2035, while orbiters could arrive at either planet in the 2040s. I’m sure my future grandchildren will enjoy watching these missions arrive.
But then, we have to keep everything in perspective. NASA’s Cassini mission was under development in the 1980s. It didn’t launch until 1997, and it didn’t get to Saturn until 2004. It’s been almost 20 years since that launch, and almost 40 years since they started working on it.
I guess we need to be more patient. I can be patient.
If you’ve got really good eyesight and can find a place where the light pollution is non-existent, you might be able to see Uranus without a telescope. It’s only possible with the right conditions, and if you know exactly where to look. And for thousands of years, scholars and astronomers were doing just that. But given that it was just a tiny pinprick of light, they believed Uranus was a star.
It was not until the late 18th century that the first recorded observation that recognized Uranus as being a planet took place. This occurred on March 13th, 1781, when British astronomer Sir William Herschel observed the planet using a telescope of his own creation. From this point onwards, Uranus would be recognized as the seventh planet and the third gas giant of the Solar System.
Observations pre-18th Century:
The first recorded instance of Uranus being spotted in the night sky is believed to date back to Classical Antiquity. During the 2nd century BCE, Hipparchos – the Greek astronomer, mathematician and founder of trigonometry – apparently recorded the planet as a star in his star catalogue (completed in 129 BCE).
This catalog was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest,which became the definitive source for Islamic astronomers and for scholars in Medieval Europe for over one-thousand years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, multiple recorded sightings were made by astronomers who also catalogued it as being a star.
This included English astronomer John Flamsteed, who in 1690 observed the star on six occasions and catalogued it as a star in the Taurus constellation (34 Tauri). During the mid-18th century, French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier made twelve recorded sightings, and also recorded it as being a star. It was not until March 13th, 1781, when William Herschel observed it from his garden house in Bath, that Uranus’ true nature began to be revealed.
On the evening in question – March 13th, 1781 – William Herschel was surveying the sky with his telescope, looking for binary stars. His first report on the object was recorded on April 26th, 1781. Initially, he described it as being a “Nebulous star or perhaps a comet”, but later settled on it being a comet since it appeared to have changed its position in the sky.
When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he maintained this theory, but also likened it to a planet. As was recorded in the Journal of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society on the occasion of his presentation:
“The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.”
While Herschel would continue to maintain that what he observed was a comet, his “discovery” stimulated debate in the astronomical community about what Uranus was. In time, astronomers like Johann Elert Bode would conclude that it was a planet, based on its nearly-circular orbit. By 1783, Herschel himself acknowledged that it was a planet to the Royal Society.
As he lived in England, Herschel originally wanted to name Uranus after his patron, King George III. Specifically, he wanted to call it Georgium Sidus (Latin for “George’s Star”), or the Georgian Planet. Although this was a popular name in Britain, the international astronomy community didn’t think much of it, and wanted to follow the historical precedent of naming the planets after ancient Greek and Roman gods.
Consistent with this, Bode proposed the name Uranus in a 1782 treatise. The Latin form of Ouranos, Uranus was the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon), the father of Cronos (Saturn), and the king of the Titans in Greek mythology. As it was discovered beyond the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, the name seemed highly appropriate.
In the following century, Neptune would be discovered, the last of the eight official planets that are currently recognized by the IAU. And by the 20th century, astronomers would discovery Pluto and other minor planets within the Kuiper Belt. The process of discovery has been ongoing, and will likely continue for some time to come.
Earth doesn’t have a corner on auroras. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have their own distinctive versions. Jupiter’s are massive and powerful; Martian auroras patchy and weak.
Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons that originate with solar winds and in the case of Jupiter, volcanic gases spewed by the moon Io. Whether solar particles or volcanic sulfur, the material gets caught in powerful magnetic fields surrounding a planet and channeled into the upper atmosphere. There, the particles interact with atmospheric gases such as oxygen or nitrogen and spectacular bursts of light result. With Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus excited hydrogen is responsible for the show.
Auroras on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn have been well-studied but not so on the ice-giant planet Uranus. In 2011, the Hubble Space Telescope took the first-ever image of the auroras on Uranus. Then in 2012 and 2014 a team from the Paris Observatory took a second look at the auroras in ultraviolet light using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) installed on Hubble.
Two powerful bursts of solar wind traveling from the sun to Uranus stoked the most intense auroras ever observed on the planet in those years. By watching the auroras over time, the team discovered that these powerful shimmering regions rotate with the planet. They also re-discovered Uranus’ long-lost magnetic poles, which were lost shortly after their discovery by Voyager 2 in 1986 due to uncertainties in measurements and the fact that the planet’s surface is practically featureless. Imagine trying to find the north and south poles of a cue ball. Yeah, something like that.
In both photos, the auroras look like glowing dots or patchy spots. Because Uranus’ magnetic field is inclined 59° to its spin axis (remember, this is the planet that rotates on its side!) , the auroral spots appear far from the planet’s north and south geographic poles. They almost look random but of course they’re not. In 2011, the spots lie close to the planet’s north magnetic pole, and in 2012 and 2014, near the south magnetic pole — just like auroras on Earth.
An auroral display can last for hours here on the home planet, but in the case of the 2011 Uranian lights, they pulsed for just minutes before fading away.
Want to know more? Read the team’s findings in detail here.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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’ “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.
Before we really get started on today’s episode, I’d like to share a bunch of really cool pictures created by my friend Kevin Gill. Kevin’s a computer programmer, 3-D animator and works on climate science data for NASA.
But one of my favorite sets of images that Kevin did were these. What would it look like if Earth had rings? Kevin and his wife went to a few cool locations, took some landscape pictures, and then Kevin did the calculations for what it would look like if Earth had a set of rings like Saturn.
And let me tell you, Earth would be so much better. At least you’d think so, but actually, it might also suck.
Last time I checked, we don’t have rings like this. In fact, we don’t have any rings at all.
Why not? Considering the fact that Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have rings, don’t we deserve at least something?
Did we ever have rings in the past, or will we in the future? What’s it going to take for us to join the ring club? Short answer, an apocalypse.
Before we get into the inevitable discussion of death and devastation, let’s talk a bit about rings.
Saturn is the big showboat, with its fancy rings. They’re made of water ice, with chunks as big as a mountain, or as small as a piece of sand. Astronomers have been arguing about where they came from and how old they are, but the current consensus – sort of – is that the rings are almost as ancient as Saturn itself: billions of years old. And yet, some process is weathering the rings, grinding the particles so they appear much younger.
Jupiter’s rings are much fainter, and we didn’t even know about them until 1979, when the Voyager spacecraft made their flybys. The rings seem to be created by dust blown off into space by impacts on the planet’s moons.
Hey, we’ve got a moon, that’s a sign.
The rings around Uranus are bigger and more complex than Jupiter’s rings, but not as substantial as Saturn’s. They’re much younger, perhaps only 600 million years old, and appear to have been caused by two moons crashing into each other, long ago.
Again, another sign. We still have the potential for stuff to crash around us.
The rings around Neptune are far dustier than any of the other ring systems, and much younger than the Solar System. And like the rings around Uranus, they were probably formed when two or more of its moons collided together.
Now what about our own prospects for rings?
The problem with icy rings is that the Earth orbits too closely to the Sun. There’s a specific point in the Solar System known as the “frost line” or “snow line”. This is the point in the Solar System where deposits of ice could have survived for long periods of time. Any closer and the radiation from the Sun sublimates the ice away.
This point is actually located about 5 astronomical units away from the Sun, in the asteroid belt. Mars is much closer, so it’s very dry, while Jupiter is beyond the frost line, and its moons have plenty of water ice.
The Earth is a mere 1 AU from the Sun. That’s the very definition of an astronomical unit, which means it’s well within the frost line. The Earth itself can maintain water because the planet’s magnetosphere acts like a shield against the solar wind. But the Moon is bone dry (except for the permanently shadowed craters at its poles).
And if there was an icy ring system around the Earth, the solar wind would have blasted it away long ago.
Instead, let’s look at another kind of ring we can have. One made of rock and dust, containing death and sorrow, from a pulverized asteroid or moon. In fact, billions of years ago, we definitely had a ring when a Mars-sized planet crashed into the Earth and spewed out a massive ring of debris. This debris collected together into the Moon we know today. That impact turned the Earth’s surface inside out. It was all volcanoes, everywhere, all the time.
It’s also possible we had a second moon in the ancient past, which collided with our current Moon. That would have generated an all new ring of material for millions of years until it was recaptured by the Moon, kicked out of orbit, or fell down onto the Earth.
It’s that “fell down onto Earth” part that’s apocalyptic. As mountains of ring material entered the Earth’s atmosphere, it would increase the temperature, baking and boiling away any life that couldn’t burrow deep underground.
It’s kind of like the book Seveneves, which you should totally read if you haven’t already. It talks about what we would see if the Moon broke apart into a ring, and the terrible terrible thing that happens next.
If Earth did get a set of rings, they’d be pretty, but they’d also be a huge pain for astronomers. As you saw in Kevin’s original pictures, the rings take up a huge chunk of the sky for most observers. The farther north or south you go, the more dramatically the rings will ruin your view. Only if you were right at the equator, you’d have a thin line, which would be borderline acceptable.
Furthermore, the rings themselves would be incredibly reflective, and completely ruin the whole concept of dark skies. You know how the Moon sucks for astronomy? Rings would be way way worse.
Finally, rings would interfere with our ability to launch spacecraft and maintain satellites. It depends on how far they extend, but we wouldn’t be able to have any satellites in that region or cross the ring plane. Oh, and that fiery death apocalypse I mentioned earlier.
We know that the Moon is drifting away from the Earth right now thanks to the conservation of angular momentum. But in the distant future, billions of years from now, there might be a scenario that turns everything around.
As you know, when it runs out of fuel in its core, the Sun is going to bloat up as a red giant, consuming Mercury and Venus. Scientists are on the fence about Earth. Some think that Earth will be fine. The Sun will blast off its outer layers, but not actually envelop Earth. Others think that at the Sun’s largest point, we’ll be orbiting within the outer atmosphere of the Sun. Ouch, that’s hot.
The orbiting Moon will experience drag as it goes around the Earth, slowing down its orbital velocity, and causing it to spiral inward. Once it reaches the Roche Limit of the Earth, about 9,500 km, our planet’s gravity will tear the Moon apart into a ring. The chunks in the ring will also experience drag in the solar atmosphere and continue to spiral inward until they crash into the planet.
That would be considered a very bad day, if it wasn’t for the fact that we were already living inside the atmosphere of the Sun. No amount of terraforming will fix that.
Sadly, the Earth doesn’t have rings like Saturn, and it probably never did. It might have had rings of rock and dust for periods, but they weren’t that majestic to look at. In fact, seeing rings around the planet would mean we’d lost a moon, and our planet was about go through a period of bombardment. I’ll pass.