Uranus

The Magician

   Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun and the third largest (by diameter). Uranus is larger in diameter but smaller in mass than Neptune.
        orbit:    2,870,990,000 km (19.218 AU) from Sun
        diameter: 51,118 km (equatorial)
        mass:     8.683e25 kg
   Careful pronunciation may be necessary to avoid embarrassment; say "YOOR a nus" , not "your anus" or "urine us".

   Uranus is the ancient Greek deity of the Heavens, the earliest supreme god. Uranus was the son and mate of Gaia the father of Cronus (Saturn) and of the Cyclopes and Titans (predecessors of the Olympian gods).

   Uranus, the first planet discovered in modern times, was discovered by William Herschel while systematicly searching the sky with his telescope on March 13, 1781. It had actually been seen many times before but ignored as simply another star (the earliest recorded sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed cataloged it as 34 Tauri). Herschel named it "the Georgium Sidus" (the Georgian Planet) in honor of his patron, the infamous (to Americans) King George III of England; others called it "Herschel". The name "Uranus" was first proposed by Bode in conformity with the other planetary names from classical mythology but didn't come into common use until 1850.

   Uranus has been visited by only one spacecraft, Voyager 2 on Jan 24 1986.

   Most of the planets spin on an axis nearly perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic but Uranus' axis is almost parallel to the ecliptic. At the time of Voyager 2's passage, Uranus' south pole was pointed almost directly at the Sun. This results in the odd fact that Uranus' polar regions receive more energy input from the Sun than do its equatorial regions. Uranus is nevertheless hotter at its equator than at its poles. The mechanism underlying this is unknown.

   Actually, there's an ongoing battle over which of Uranus' poles is its north pole! Either its axial inclination is a bit over 90 degrees and its rotation is direct, or it's a bit less than 90 degrees and the rotation is retrograde. The problem is that you need to draw a dividing line *somewhere*, because in a case like Venus there is little dispute that the rotation is indeed retrograde (not a direct rotation with an inclination of nearly 180).

   Uranus is composed primarily of rock and various ices, with only about 15% hydrogen and a little helium (in contrast to Jupiter and Saturn which are mostly hydrogen). Uranus (and Neptune) are in many ways similar to the cores of Jupiter and Saturn minus the massive liquid metallic hydrogen envelope. It appears that Uranus does not have a rocky core like Jupiter and Saturn but rather that its material is more or less uniformly distributed.

   Uranus' atmosphere is about 83% hydrogen, 15% helium and 2% methane.

   Like the other gas planets, Uranus has bands of clouds that blow around rapidly. But they are extremely faint, visible only with radical image enhancement of the Voyager 2 pictures (right). Recent observations with HST (left) show larger and more pronounced streaks. Further HST observations show even more activity. Uranus is no longer the bland boring planet that Voyager saw! It now seems clear that the differences are due to seasonal effects since the Sun is now at a lower Uranian latitude which may cause more pronounced day/night weather effects. By 2007 the Sun will be directly over Uranus's equator.

   Uranus' blue color is the result of absorption of red light by methane in the upper atmosphere. There may be colored bands like Jupiter's but they are hidden from view by the overlaying methane layer.

   Like the other gas planets, Uranus has rings. Like Jupiter's, they are very dark but like Saturn's composed of fairly large particles ranging up to 10 meters in diameter in addition to fine dust. There are 11 known rings, all very faint; the brightest is known as the Epsilon ring. The Uranian rings were the first after Saturn's to be discovered. This was of considerable importance since we now know that rings are a common feature of planets, not a peculiarity of Saturn alone.

   Voyager 2 discovered 10 small moons in addition to the 5 large ones already known. It is likely that there are several more tiny satellites within the rings.

   Uranus' magnetic field is odd in that it is not centered on the center of the planet and is tilted almost 60 degrees with respect to the axis of rotation. It is probably generated by motion at relatively shallow depths within Uranus.

   Uranus is sometimes just barely visible with the unaided eye on a very clear night; it is fairly easy to spot with binoculars (if you know exactly where to look). A small astronomical telescope will show a small disk. There are several Web sites that show the current position of Uranus (and the other planets) in the sky, but much more detailed charts will be required to actually find it. Such charts can be created with a planetarium program such as Starry Night.

Uranus' Satellites

Uranus has 15 named moons plus 5 recently discovered ones which as yet have not been given official names; it thus has the most known moons of any of the planets.
           Distance  Radius    Mass
Satellite  (000 km)   (km)     (kg)   Discoverer   Date
---------  --------  ------  -------  ----------  -----
Cordelia         50      13    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Ophelia          54      16    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Bianca           59      22    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Cressida         62      33    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Desdemona        63      29    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Juliet           64      42    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Portia           66      55    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Rosalind         70      27    ?      Voyager 2    1986
Belinda          75      34    ?      Voyager 2    1986
1986U10          75      20    ?      Karkoschka   1999
Puck             86      77    ?      Voyager 2    1985
Miranda         130     236  6.30e19  Kuiper       1948
Ariel           191     579  1.27e21  Lassell      1851
Umbriel         266     585  1.27e21  Lassell      1851
Titania         436     789  3.49e21  Herschel     1787
Oberon          583     761  3.03e21  Herschel     1787
Caliban        7100      30    ?      Gladman      1997
1999U1        10000      20    ?      Kavelaars    1999
Sycorax       12200      60    ?      Nicholson    1997
1999U2        25000      15    ?      Gladman      1999
1999U3                   20    ?      Holman       1999

Uranus' Rings

         Distance   Width
Ring       (km)      (km)
-------  --------   -----
1986U2R    38000    2,500
6          41840    1-3
5          42230    2-3
4          42580    2-3
Alpha      44720    7-12
Beta       45670    7-12
Eta        47190    0-2
Gamma      47630    1-4
Delta      48290    3-9
1986U1R    50020    1-2
Epsilon    51140    20-100
(distance is from Uranus' center to the ring's inner edge)

More about Uranus and its satellites

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Bill Arnett; last updated: 2000 Feb 6