Uranus : Facts and History

 From its discovery in the sky to the unique tilt that sets it apart, and more! Join me as we show you Uranus Facts and History! 

9. It's Discovery Before diving into the various facts about Uranus and how it quite possibly became what it is today. We need to first understand how it got discovered because it's a tale that is rather familiar when it comes to the outer planets. You see, Uranus had been observed on many occasions before its recognition as a planet, but it was generally mistaken for a star. Many other planets and the dwarf planet had similar misidentifications because of their distance from the sun and the Earth and their slow orbits (more on that later). Possibly the earliest known observation was by Hipparchos, who in 128 BC might have recorded it as a star for his star catalog that was later incorporated into Ptolemy's Almagest. The earliest definite sighting was in 1690, when John Flamsteed observed it at least six times, cataloging it as 34 Tauri. The French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier observed Uranus at least twelve times between 1750 and 1769, including on four consecutive nights. Oh, but it didn't stop there though, far from it. Sir William Herschel observed Uranus on March 13th, 1781 from the garden of his house in Bath, Somerset, England (which is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy), and initially reported it (in April 1781) as a comet. With a telescope, Herschel "engaged in a series of observations on the parallax of the fixed stars." This is infinitely ironic because of the fame of Herschel and his discoveries of other major celestial objects in the sky. But most of all, he kept asserting it was a comet to everyone that mattered, although one time he did liken it to a planet. "The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience, I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932 and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that luster and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed." Oops. Things only got worse later on. Herschel notified the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne of his discovery and received this flummoxed reply from him: "I don't know what to call it. It is as likely to be a regular planet moving in an orbit nearly circular to the sun as a Comet moving in a very eccentric ellipsis. I have not yet seen any coma or tail to it." Herschel though refused to believe it was anything other than a comet, but other astronomers out there were starting to get wise to the fact that this could be something else. Like, you know, a planet? Finnish-Swedish astronomer Anders Johan Lexell, working in Russia, was the first to compute the orbit of the new object. Its nearly circular orbit led him to the conclusion that it was a planet rather than a comet. Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode described Herschel's discovery as "a moving star that can be deemed a hitherto unknown planet-like object circulating beyond the orbit of Saturn". Bode concluded that its near-circular orbit was more like a planet's than a comet's. The object was soon universally accepted as a new planet, and even Herschel had to admit it after a while and note to Joseph Banks that he was wrong and that other astronomers had done right by labeling it a planet. Astronomy wasn't what it is right now back then. Their technologies, mixed with their understanding of the universe, was limited. For them to find Uranus and track its movements in 1781 is astounding. So it's understandable that they could get the classification wrong. 

8. Its Name When you think about the 7th planet from the sun, your eyes and mind no doubt go to its name, Uranus. Which as we'll explain later has become the"butt" of many jokes. But back when the planet was truly found, that wasn't the intention at all. The name of Uranus references the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus, the father of Cronus (Saturn), and grandfather of Zeus(Jupiter). Consensus on the name was not reached until almost 70 years after the planet's discovery. Which is a very long time when you consider how long the other planets took to get their name. During the original discussions following discovery, Maskelyne asked Herschel to "do the astronomical world the more fave to give a name to your planet, which is entirely your own, and which we are so much obliged to you for the discovery of". In response to Maskelyne's request, Herschel decided to name the object Georgium Sidus (George's Star), or the "Georgian Planet" in honor of his new patron, King George III. He explained this decision in a letter to Joseph Banks: "In the fabulous ages of ancient times, the appellations of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were given to the Planets, as being the names of their principal heroes and divinities. In the present more philosophical era it would hardly be allowable to have recourse to the same method and call it Juno, Pallas, Apollo, or Minerva, for a name to our new heavenly body. The first consideration of any particular event, or remarkable incident, seems to be its chronology: if in any future age it should be asked, when this last-found Planet was discovered? It would be a very satisfactory answer to say, 'In the reign of King George the Third'." While that may have seemed logical to him, the rest of the world didn't agree. Mainly because it was a British King getting the name and the rest of the world didn't think that was right. Thus, other names were suggested by people from all over. Ironically, someone thought it should be named Herschel because it was he who discovered it. Just as ironic, someone felt it would be good to name it Neptune, and had a lot of support around that name. In a March 1782 treatise, Bode proposed Uranus, the Latinised version of the Greek god of the sky, Ouranos. Bode argued that the name should follow the mythology so as not to stand out as different from the other planets and that Uranus was an appropriate name as the father of the first generation of the Titans. He also noted that elegance of the name in that just as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, the new planet should be named after the father of Saturn. Many agreed, and thus Uranus was the most widely accepted name. However, because of a holdout, the HM Nautical Almanac Office, the name was not truly universally accepted until 1850. So as you can see, finding a planet is hard, naming a planet in those days? That was even harder in some ways. 

7. Orbits and Rotations and Seasons Focusing now on the planet itself, Uranus is a dichotomy of curiosity when it comes to its orbits and rotations. Why is that? Because if you look at its daily rotation, it's only 17 hours long. Which means a day there isn't even as long as a day on Earth. However, when you get into its orbit around the sun, it takes 84 years to go one full rotation. Think about that. That means that one full orbit for Uranus can be equivalent to an entire human life! If not longer when you look at the average of it all. This, combined with its "unique tilt" also makes the planet very unique in terms of its seasons. The planet's north pole experiences 21 years of nighttime in winter, 21 years of daytime in summer, and 42 years of day and night in the spring and fall. 

6. "Funny Tilt" As the series Schoolhouse Rock adequately noted in their song "Interplanet Janet", "Uranus is built on a funny tilt". This is 100% accurate because unlike every single planet in our solar system, Uranus is sideways in the literal fashion. This was proven by many metrics, but the biggest one being its rings. They're perfectly vertical, unlike Saturn or other planets we know of that have horizontal rings most times. Furthermore, this was proven when studying its axis, which is tilted 98 degrees (relative to the plane of the solar system), meaning it essentially spins on its side. No other planet in the solar system is tilted as much Jupiter is tilted by about 3 degrees, for example, and Earth by about 23 degrees. But what caused this? No one is really sure. However, certain scientists and astronomers from Japan suggest that a "cosmic impact" may be to blame. Not only that, they think that this cosmic impact could've not just put Uranus on a "funny tilt", but also helped make its many moons. Given that none of the other planets in our solar system have this kind of a tilt, it's fair to say that they might be right in their notion of an impact causing Uranus to be like this. 

5. Atmosphere Uranus' atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, with a small number of methane and traces of water and ammonia. The methane gives Uranus the signature blue color. While the probe Voyager 2 saw only a few discrete clouds, a Great Dark Spot, and a small dark spot during its flyby in 1986, more recent observations reveal that Uranus exhibits dynamic clouds as it approaches equinox, including rapidly changing bright features. Uranus' planetary atmosphere, with a minimum temperature of 49K (-224.2 degrees Celsius) makes it even colder than Neptune in some places. Wind speeds can reach up to 560 miles per hour (900 kilometers per hour) on Uranus. Winds are retrograde at the equator, blowing in the reverse direction of the planet’s rotation. But closer to the poles, winds shift to a prograde direction, flowing with Uranus' rotation. 

4. Pop Culture Uranus is the "butt" of more than a few jokes and witty (and not so witty) puns, but it's also a frequent destination in various fictional stories, such as the video game Mass Effect and TV shows like Doctor Who. The radioactive element uranium was named after Uranus when it was discovered in 1789, just eight years after the planet was discovered. In anime, Uranus has a very special place in history via the show Sailor Moon. Uranus was one of two Sailors who came later in the series, and the character of Uranus was gay alongside Neptune. But in the American version of the show, they were "cousins". What's more, as if to showcase the "uniqueness" of Uranus and show that she (like the planet) was "sideways" in certain measures, she dressed like a guy when not in fighter form by wearing suits. In the Sports world, on the show Pardon the Interruption, host Tony Kornheiser wastes no chance to make a Uranus joke. Why? Because he can, and he loves to do it. And he's not the only one as we've noted. Even Mass Effect had a bit where they had a Uranus joke when you probed the planet for materials in Mass Effect 2. Because of its name, regardless of the origins and meaning of it, Uranus will always be made fun of by those who want a quick joke. 

3. Magnetosphere Uranus has an unusual, irregularly shaped magnetosphere. Magnetic fields are typically in alignment with a planet's rotation, but Uranus' magnetic field is tipped over: the magnetic axis is tilted nearly 60 degrees from the planet's axis of rotation and is also offset from the center of the planet by one-third of the planet's radius. Auroras on Uranus are not in line with the poles (like they are on Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn) due to the lopsided magnetic field. The magnetosphere tail behind Uranus opposite the Sun extends into space for millions of miles. Its magnetic field lines are twisted by Uranus’sideways rotation into a long corkscrew shape. 

2. Rings Uranus has two sets of rings. The inner system of nine rings consists mostly of narrow, dark grey rings. There are two outer rings: the innermost one is reddish like dusty rings elsewhere in the solar system, and the outer ring is blue like Saturn's E ring. In order of increasing distance from the planet, the rings are called Zeta, 6, 5, 4, Alpha, Beta, Eta, Gamma, Delta, Lambda, Epsilon, Nu, and Mu. Some of the larger rings are surrounded by belts of fine dust. 

1. Moons Uranus is one of many planets in our solar system that have many moons. At present count, it has 27. Their composition is stated to be "half water ice and half rock", which could have some potential for things in the future if we're able to study them and get closer than we can right now. Another thing that separates the moons of Uranus from others is that their names are different. If you look at the grand scale of the solar system we're in, you'll see that the planets and moons are named are gods, deities, and other beings of mythology. But not Uranus. Its moons are named after Shakespearean characters and ones written by Alexander Pope. Showing that even when it comes to names, Uranus is not like the other planets. Thanks for watching everyone! What did you think of this look at the history of Uranus and various facts that are associated with it?

Were you surprised by some of the revelations around Uranus? Which of these facts did you personally find the most fascinating of the bunch?

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