Uranus's Moons, Rings, Atmosphere & Rotation

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  • 0:01 Voyager 2
  • 0:46 Uranus's Atmosphere
  • 2:43 Uranus's Layers
  • 3:16 Uranus's Moons, Rings,…
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will explore the planet Uranus, its atmosphere, internal layers, rings, moons, and much more. You'll learn why Uranus has such an interesting color and why it doesn't have the cool clouds Jupiter has.

Voyager 2

Uranus, the second-to-last planet from the sun, is not a very inspiring sight from Earth. Using Earth-based telescopes, it appears as a faint, uninspiring, small, and hazy greenish-blue disk.

We actually don't know much about Uranus. Only one space probe has come close enough to Uranus to gather significant data about it. That was Voyager 2 in January of 1986. Thus, much of our knowledge about Uranus is incomplete and further investigation may cause astronomers to change their opinions about what we know now.

However, this lesson will go over what we do know about Uranus given our best observations so far.

Uranus' Atmosphere

Upon Voyager 2's flyby past Uranus, data confirmed the Uranian atmosphere isn't massively different from Jupiter and Saturn. The Uranian atmosphere is composed of 82.5% hydrogen and 15.2% helium. One distinguishing factor that sets Uranus apart from Saturn and Jupiter is that it contains more methane in its atmosphere.

I tell you this for a reason. The greenish-blue disk I mentioned before? Uranus looks like this because of that 'excess' methane, or CH4, in the atmosphere. Methane absorbs longer wavelengths of light (the reds and yellows). This means that the sunlight that's reflected by Uranus is devoid of red and yellow colors, the colors Saturn and Jupiter clearly have. Thus, Uranus looks more blue-green in color.

And the haze I mentioned in the intro? That's due to the sun's UV light converting some of this methane gas into a hydrocarbon haze, which makes it hard to see much below the upper atmosphere. And this brings me to my next point.

Do you know why Jupiter's atmosphere has these crazy swirling clouds, while Uranus has a very bland and uniform appearance to it? It's because Uranus is colder than Jupiter. The crazy-looking clouds on Jupiter are made up of ammonia, water, and ammonium hydrosulfide.

Uranus is too far away from the sun, it's too cold, and so the stuff that makes up those clouds freezes and precipitates out of the Uranian atmosphere, giving the planet a largely bland appearance. There are some clouds on Uranus, made of methane, but they're nothing to write home about because they form in the lower reaches of the atmosphere, the ones that are 'hazed out' due to the hydrocarbon, and so they're hard for us to see.

Uranus' Layers

Now that you're a pro about the Uranian atmosphere, let's talk about its layers. At the center of the image on your screen is a core made of heavy elements. The core is then surrounded by a mantle of ammonia and liquid water that's really compressed. Basically, the core is surrounded by a huge amount of window cleaning fluid. Can you imagine the smell of that? That's disgusting. Around this layer, the mantle layer, is another layer that's made of liquid hydrogen, helium, and methane.

Uranus' Moons, Rings, & More

And while learning all of that was boring, I'll give you a pretty cool fact about Uranus: Uranus rotates on its side. Meaning, its equator has an incline of about 98 degrees to its orbit. The reason this is actually interesting is because, as a result, half of the planet will be in complete darkness and the other half will always be lit up during its 21-year-long summer and winter seasons. Talk about insomnia!

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