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Scientists Unravel The Mystery Of Uranus’ Vertical Rings

Our solar system has many mysteries, but ever since the dawn of science man has slowly but steadily unraveled many of these mysteries. Among the many mysterious elements of our solar system, Uranus stands to be the most mysterious planet in our solar system. There is very little that we know about this planet.

While other planets rotate in an upright position having their spin axis close to right angles to their orbits, Uranus itself is tilted at almost a right angle. What this means is that, during the summer in Uranus, it’s north pole points directly towards the sun. Another unusual feature of this ringed planet is that unlike it’s counterparts Saturn, Neptune and Jupiter which all have horizontal rings, the rings of Uranus are aligned vertically. Since man began space exploration in the last century, we have managed to visit Uranus only once, way back in 1986, with the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Uranus has been dubbed “The ice giant” because it has a surprisingly cold temperature. The planet also has a messy and off-centre magnetic field, unlike the neat bar-magnet shape of most other planets like Earth or Jupiter. Because of it’s unusual magnetic field, scientists hypothesized that Uranus was once similar to the other planets in the solar system but was suddenly flipped over. In a new research published in the Astrophysical Journal, some scientists have offered a clue to solve the mystery of Uranus.

Uranus has been dubbed “The ice giant” because it has a surprisingly cold temperature. The planet also has a messy and off-centre magnetic field, unlike the neat bar-magnet shape of most other planets like Earth or Jupiter. Because of it’s unusual magnetic field, scientists hypothesized that Uranus was once similar to the other planets in the solar system but was suddenly flipped over. In a new research published in the Astrophysical Journal, Jacob Kegerreis, a PhD Student, at the Durham University offered some incredible insight to solve the mystery of Uranus’ spin.

Cataclysmic collision

In the early years of our solar system, protoplanets (bodies developing to become planets) collided in violent giant impacts that helped create the worlds we see today. Most researches hold the belief that Uranus’ spin was the result of a one of these collisions.

While it is not yet possible to recreate planets in the lab and smash them together to see what happens, what Jacob and his team did was to create computer models simulating the events using a powerful supercomputer as the next best thing.

The results of the simulations (see above) showed that a body at least twice as massive as the Earth could readily create the strange spin Uranus has today by slamming into and merging with a young planet. For more grazing collisions, the impacting body’s material would probably end up spread out in a thin, hot shell near the edge of Uranus’ ice layer, underneath the hydrogen and helium atmosphere.

This could inhibit the mixing of material inside Uranus, trapping the heat from its formation deep inside. Excitingly, this idea seems to fit with the observation that Uranus’ exterior is so cold today.

Although Thermal evolution is a very complicated topic, the simulation results have opened our eyes to how a giant impact can reshape a planet both inside and out.

Uranus seen by Voyager 2
Uranus seen by Voyager 2.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Although there are still many unanswered questions about Uranus, and giant impacts in general, these new findings are a step in the right direction. Perhaps a few more trips to Uranus and we may well be gifted with even more answers.

Read Jacob Kegerreis, Original Article here. The research findings was also published in the Astrophysical Journal and presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

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