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January 30, 2023

A Filthy Piker Guide to Uranus

By Alexandra Queen

Uranus is something everyone should know more about. How big is it? How was it discovered? Why does it smell that way? Spend some time with us, if you will, contemplating Uranus.

Cows discussing methane in the atmosphere. The seventh planet in our solar system is a blue-green world of slushy vapor clouds gradually congealing around a rocky core. We don't know much about the inside of Uranus, because we've never had a chance to probe it, a fact which scientists would like to remedy. Because of its lack of a solid, firm surface, we call Uranus a gas giant. Uranus has a lot of methane, which accounts for the blue color. Does that mean it smells bad there? We don't know for sure, but theoretical scientists often sit around and speculate on whether or not someone poking around Uranus without a spacesuit would complain more about the funky smell or being dead.

Couldn't find it with both hands Sir William Herschel is the man responsible for finding this planet. What was Sir William doing looking at Uranus anyway? He was actually systematically charting faint stars. When he realized that it was indeed a planet, his first thought was to name it Sidus Georgium after his king. (Can you imagine referring to Uranus as "George"?) The international community had a fit, however, so Herschel settled for another name from classical mythology. Uranus, being the father of Saturn, was chosen. Those that were not fond of the English king protested, saying they thought everyone had agreed NOT to name the new planet after King George. The astronomers of the time steadfastly refused to acknowledge the pun and the solar system's biggest joke was born.

A summer day on Uranus Uranus moves rather oddly. Most planets spin with their axes perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, as if the sun were a giant fried egg (sunny side up, of course) and the plane of the ecliptic was the egg white, and the planets were little tops, spinning gleefully around the yolk on the fried egg white. Not Uranus. For some reason, its axis is parallel to the cosmic egg white, so that in our metaphor, it would be gamely rolling along on its side while all the other planets were behaving themselves and spinning.

This means that if you were a hypothetical observer floating above the north pole of Uranus in the summer, just after you died trying to judge how stinky a methane-and-ammonia atmosphere really is, your fleeing consciousness might note that the sun was directly overhead. If your spirit lingered, you would see that the sun would not rise and set, but would spiral gradually outward from that overhead point as the season progressed into autumn. Eventually, it would spiral out of sight beneath the horizon and you would spend a winter in darkness, possibly comparing the atmospheric smells to Icelandic cow barns or old gym socks, until sometime the following spring when the sun re-emerged again at upon the horizon and slowly circled its way back up. Paperboys and roosters have been observed to develop psychological disorders under such conditions.

Albedo When people look closely at Uranus, they see dirty moons. That is to say, in contrast with the satellites of other planets, like Saturn, the moons of Uranus have a very low albedo, or reflectivity. This is thought to be because of radiation darkening, a weathering process from high energy particles bombarding the surfaces of the moons over long periods of time.

One of the most interesting moons of Uranus is Miranda. The geological clues of Miranda's surface lead astronomers to believe that the moon was once struck by an impact that completely shattered it into pieces, but that the pieces fell back together and reformed again. Apparently it can be dangerous to hang around close to Uranus.

Rings of Uranus With so many unusual and exciting features, you'll find that it's always productive to spend quality time studying Uranus. Share what you learn about Uranus with a friend - you'll be glad you did.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-04-24
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