Category Archives: Exoticphysics

Uranus: strange rotations, strange storms, and strange synchronicity

Uranus has been popping up in the news a lot this week (at least in the kinds of news that nerds like me watch). Two different and unrelated stories came out about the unfortunately named gas giant.

Firstly, a team of researchers at UC Berkeley using relatively recent data from Hubble and from the Keck observatory in Hawaii, created some very striking images of storms on the surface of the planet. These storms are unusually intense and unusually hot. Scientists were not expecting them, and are at a loss to explain them. Uranus doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. So, it’s hard to say where the heat for these storms is coming from.

Secondly, a researcher at the University of Arizona, Erich Karkoschka, was looking over twenty year old data from the Voyager 2 spacecraft and has come up with an extremely startling theory — he suggests that the southern half of Uranus rotates faster than the northern half does!

Since Mr. Karkoschka was working with old data, it’s a total coincidence that he announced his findings at around the same time that we’re seeing these mysteriously hot storms on the surface of the planet. But, I have to wonder, could his theory explain these storms? If the one half of Uranus is spinning faster than the other half, wouldn’t there be enormous pressure from friction along the equator, causing the kind of hot storms that we’re seeing right now?

Uranus is a crazy sideways planet, with crazy sideways seasons.

I heard a while ago that the farthest, coldest planet in our solar system was tilted on its side. Today, my older son had a field at the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago, and I had the chance to ask a question that had been bothering me. Does the axis of Uranus’ rotation point along the path of it’s rotation around the Sun, such that it still has a normal day and night? Or does it rotate pointing toward the Sun, such that one hemisphere is in constant daytime and one in constant night? The answer is even weirder than I thought. It’s axis of rotation, like the Earth’s, is fixed, such that it seems to rotate in relation to the Sun. So, it has seasons, like the Earth does. Only, on Uranus, if you lived in one particular place, you’d have two seasons with a relatively normal day/night cycle, one season of total daytime, and one season of total nighttime. Not to mention, each season on Uranus is over twenty years long!