Space mystery: ‘Unique’ Uranus rings stun astronomers – ‘Weird!’

An unexplained heat wave is warming the rings of Uranus, even though the planet orbits far away from the Sun. The latest heat images of the planet, obtained by two telescopes in Chile, have for the first time revealed the rather surprising temperature of Uranus’ rings. And although -195C (-320F) – the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen – sounds cold, it is far warmer than expected.

Most of the universe is much colder, approaching a temperature called absolute zero, which is roughly -460F (-273C).

This is the lowest temperatures can plummet, a point at which even atoms stop moving.

Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, is found far out in the solar system.

The planet receives only a fraction of the heat from the Sun that Earth receives.

The ice giant orbits our star at an average distance of 19 Astronomical Units (AU).

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Each AU is equivalent to the average distance from the Earth to the Sun, approximately 93,000,000 miles (150,000,000km).

The astronomers who captured the latest images of Uranus do not know what is causing the relative warmth.

But the unexplained temperature proves the brightest and densest ring at Uranus, known as the epsilon ring, is unique from all other ring systems in our solar system.

Every giant planet in our solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — has its own set of rings, but Saturn’s are the most spectacular and best-understood.

This is because Saturn’s are easily visible even with just a small telescope and because NASA’s Cassini mission studied them up close.

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But Saturn’s rings are totally different from those surrounding Uranus.

Imke de Pater, an astronomer at the University of California, the study’s co-author, said: “Saturn’s mainly icy rings are broad and bright and have a range of particle sizes, from micron-sized dust in the innermost D ring, to tens of meters in size in the main rings.

“The small end is missing in the main rings of Uranus.

“The brightest ring, epsilon, is composed of golf ball-sized and larger rocks.”

The epsilon ring also differs from rings observed at the other giant planets.

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Jupiter’s rings are made of particles that are each roughly a thousandth of a millimetre in diameter, while Neptune’s rings are made up almost entirely of dust.

The epsilon ring does not even resemble the main rings of Uranus, as vast tracts of dust lie in between them.

The study’s lead author Edward Molter added: ”We already know that the epsilon ring is a bit weird, because we do not see the smaller stuff.

“Something has been sweeping the smaller stuff out, or it is all glomming together.

“We just don’t know. This is a step toward understanding the rings’ composition and whether all of the rings came from the same source material or are different for each ring.”

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