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What is Uranus?

  Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun and is the third largest in the solar system. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1781. It has an equatorial diameter of 51,800 kilometers (32,190 miles) and orbits the Sun once every 84.01 Earth years. It has a mean distance from the Sun of 2.87 billion kilometers (1.78 billion miles). The length of a day on Uranus is 17 hours 14 minutes. Uranus has at least 15 moons. The two largest moons, Titania and Oberon, were discovered by William Herschel in 1787. The atmosphere of Uranus is composed of 83% hydrogen, 15% helium, 2% methane and small amounts of acetylene and other hydrocarbons. Methane in the upper atmosphere absorbs red light, giving Uranus its blue-green color. The atmosphere is arranged into clouds running at constant latitudes, similar to the orientation of the more vivid latitudinal bands seen on Jupiter and Saturn. Winds at mid-latitudes on Uranus blow in the direction of the planet's rotation. These winds blow at velocities of 40 to 160 meters per second (90 to 360 miles per hour). Radio science experiments found winds of about 100 meters per second blowing in the opposite direction at the equator. Uranus is distinguished by the fact that it is tipped on its side. Its unusual position is thought to be the result of a collision with a planet-sized body early in the solar system's history. Voyager 2 found that one of the most striking influences of this sideways position is its effect on the tail of the magnetic field, which is itself tilted 60 degrees from the planet's axis of rotation. The magnetotail was shown to be twisted by the planet's rotation into a long corkscrew shape behind the planet. The magnetic field source is unknown; the electrically conductive, super-pressurized ocean of water and ammonia once thought to lie between the core and the atmosphere now appears to be nonexistent. The magnetic fields of Earth and other planets are believed to arise from electrical currents produced in their molten cores. Uranus' Rings In 1977, the first nine rings of Uranus were discovered. During the Voyager encounters, these rings were photographed and measured, as were two other new rings and ringlets. Uranus' rings are distinctly different from those at Jupiter and Saturn. The outermost epsilon ring is composed mostly of ice boulders several feet across. A very tenuous distribution of fine dust also seems to be spread throughout the ring system. There may be a large number of narrow rings, or possibly incomplete rings or ring arcs, as small as 50 meters (160 feet) in width. The individual ring particles were found to be of low reflectivity. At least one ring, the epsilon, was found to be gray in color. The moons Cordelia and Ophelia act as shepherd satellites for the epsilon ring. Uranus This view of Uranus was acquired by Voyager 2 in January 1986. The greenish color of it atmosphere is due to methane and high-altitude photochemical smog. Uranus in True and False Color These two pictures of Uranus, one in true color (left) and the other in false color, were compiled from images returned January 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. The spacecraft was 9.1 million kilometers (5.7 million miles) from the planet, several days from closest approach. The picture at left has been processed to show Uranus as human eyes would see it from the vantage point of the spacecraft. The picture is a composite of images taken through blue, green and orange filters. The darker shadings at the upper right of the disk correspond to the day-night boundary on the planet. Beyond this boundary lies the hidden northern hemisphere of Uranus, which remains in total darkness as the planet rotates. The blue-green color results from the absorption of red light by methane gas in Uranus' deep, cold and remarkably clear atmosphere. The picture at right uses false color and extreme contrast enhancement to bring out subtle details in the polar region of Uranus. Images obtained through ultraviolet, violet and orange filters were respectively converted to the same blue, green and red colors used to produce the picture at left. The very slight contrasts visible in true color are greatly exaggerated here. In this false-color picture, Uranus reveals a dark polar hood surrounded by a series of progressively lighter concentric bands. One possible explanation is that a brownish haze or smog, concentrated over the pole, is arranged into bands by zonal motions of the upper atmosphere. The bright orange and yellow strip at the lower edge of the planet's limb is an artifact of the image enhancement. In fact, the limb is dark and uniform in color around the planet. Voyager Farewell Image This view of Uranus was recorded by Voyager 2 on Jan 25, l986, as the spacecraft left the planet behind and set forth on the cruise to Neptune Voyager was 1 million kilometers (about 600,000 miles) from Uranus when it acquired this wide- angle view. The picture -- a color composite of blue, green and orange frames -- has a resolution of 140 km (90 mi). The thin crescent of Uranus seen here at an angle of 153 degrees between the spacecraft, the planet and the Sun. Even at this extreme angle, Uranus retains the pale blue-green color seen by ground-based astronomers and recorded by Voyager during its historic encounter. This color results from the presence of methane in Uranus' atmosphere; the gas absorbs red wavelengths of light, leaving the predominant hue seen here. The tendency for the crescent to become white at the extreme edge is caused by the presence of a high-altitude haze Voyager 2 -- having encountered Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981 and Uranus in 1986 -- will proceed on its journey to Neptune. Closest approcch is scheduled for Aug 24, l989. The Voyager project is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 observed Uranus through a filter that is sensitive to light reflected by a pair of high altitude clouds. This makes a high altitude haze over Uranus' south polar region clearly visible, along with a pair of high altitude clouds or plume-type features that are 4,300 and 3,100 kilometers (2,500 and 1,800 miles) across, respectively. Pseudo-image of Uranus' Ring This pseudo-image of Uranus' rings was generated by using Voyager 2 frame FDS 26852.19. This image was taken in forward scattered light and shows dust bands not seen in any other image. A 3 pixel wide slice was taken from the most detailed part of the image, averaged to a 1 pixel wide image, then rotated 360 degrees and projected into perspective view. The real color of the rings are neutral gray and they are as dark as charcoal.