Amazing Uranus is a very special planet in our solar system. 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.
Uranus is similar in composition to Neptune, and both are of different chemical composition than the larger gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. 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).
Like the other gas giants, Uranus has a ring system, a magnetosphere, and numerous moons. The Uranian system has a unique configuration among the planets because its axis of rotation is tilted sideways, nearly into the plane of its revolution about the Sun. Its north and south poles therefore lie where most other planets have their equators.
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.
Though it is visible to the naked eye like the five classical planets, it was never recognized as a planet by ancient observers because of its dimness and slow orbit. Sir William Herschel announced its discovery on March 13, 1781, expanding the known boundaries of the Solar System for the first time in history. Uranus was also the first planet discovered with a telescope.
Uranus had been observed on many occasions before its recognition as a planet, but it was generally mistaken for a star. The earliest recorded sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed observed the planet at least six times, cataloging it as 34 Tauri. The French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier observed Uranus at least twelve times between 1750 and 1769, including on four consecutive nights.
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.
From 1995 to 2006, Uranus’s apparent magnitude fluctuated between +5.6 and +5.9, placing it just within the limit of naked eye visibility at +6.5. Its angular diameter is between 3.4 and 3.7 arcseconds, compared with 16 to 20 arcseconds for Saturn and 32 to 45 arcseconds for Jupiter.
Uranus’s mass is roughly 14.5 times that of the Earth, making it the least massive of the giant planets. Its diameter is slightly larger than Neptune’s at roughly four times Earth’s.
Uranus has 27 known natural satellites. The names for these satellites are chosen from characters from the works of Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. The five main satellites are Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon. The Uranian satellite system is the least massive among the gas giants; indeed, the combined mass of the five major satellites would be less than half that of Triton alone.