URANUS One of the mysterious gas giants, has rings like Saturn, but they are very faint and weren't discovered until the planet was visited by the Voyager spacecraft. The planet is also the only one in our solar system that lays on it's side instead of standing straight up
Once considered one of the blander-looking planets, Uranus (pronounced YOOR un nus) has been revealed as a dynamic world with some of the brightest clouds in the outer solar system and 11 rings. Uranus gets its blue-green color from methane gas above the deeper cloud layers (methane absorbs red light and reflects blue light).Uranus is the seventh planet in our solar system, located in between Saturn and Neptune. Uranus is very far away from the  Sun. Its average distance from the Sun is about one and three-quarters billion miles, or about twenty times the distance from  the Sun to Earth. The path, or orbit, Uranus follows around the Sun is an ellipse, or stretched out circle, which means that  Uranus' distance from the Sun varies from about 1.7 billion (1,700,000,000) miles at its closest to about 1.87 billion  (1,870,000,00) miles at its furthest away.
       Since Uranus is so far away from the Sun, it takes it a very long to to go around the Sun once. A year on Uranus, the amount of time it takes for this trip, is 84 Earth years. A day on Uranus, which is the amount of time it takes for the plant to spin around, or rotate, once is shorter than a day here on Earth. The blue-green planet spins around once in a little over seventeen  hours.  One of the many odd facts about Uranus is that it is "lying on its side" as it faces the Sun. Earth faces the sun standing  almost straight up, with the north and south poles at the top and bottom as it looks at the Sun. For some reason, Uranus has
       rolled over, so what we would think of as the south pole is facing the Sun. Scientists don't know why the planet does this, but  it may be the result of a collision with some other body in space. Also, the planet rotates, or spins, from East to West which  is the exact opposite of the way that Earth spins. 

  Can I See It?
       Since it is so far away from Earth, and so much smaller than the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, it is fairly hard to see. If  you live in a place where the skies are dark and you can see to the southern horizon, you might be able to pick out Uranus  with a pair of binoculars. The planet will appear as a faint blue-green light. Even through a telescope, Uranus will only be a  small blue-green disc. 

  How Big Is It?
       Uranus is about four times the size of Earth, but it is still much smaller than either Saturn or Jupiter. Uranus is a little over  30 thousand miles in diameter, compared to Earth's diameter of around 7,600 miles. Even though Uranus is much larger than our Earth, it is dwarfed when compared to mighty Jupiter, which is over 85 thousand miles in diameter. 

  Does It Have Rings?
       Yes, it does, as all the gas planets do, but the rings of Uranus are a very faint imitation of the spectacular rings that surround Saturn. The Voyager spacecraft showed us the rings, which we cannot see at all from Earth. The only way that Earthbound astronomers can even get a hint of the rings is when they occasionally block the light of a star behind them. Even  the Hubble Space Telescope cannot get a very good view of the rings, as the picture at right shows.  While the rings of Saturn are made up of fairly small pieces of bright white ices, the rings of Uranus for the most part are  made of larger chunks of very dark, rocky material. The darkness of the chunks that make up the rings help explain why we  cannot see them from Earth. 

  How Many Moons Does It Have?
       As plain as Uranus appears, it has an interesting collection of at least fifteen moons. There are probably more, but we don't  have any way of finding out for sure until, and if, we send another spacecraft to investigate.  The five moons in the picture at right are the largest, and furthest away, of Uranus' family of moons. From top to bottom, they are Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon. In case you are wondering where such unusual names came from, they  are named after characters in the stories of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. We have known about these moons for  many years. 
       The remaining ten moons in the collection are much smaller and a lot closer to the planet. They were discovered by the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it sped past the planet in 1986. Some of the smaller moons act as "shepherds", helping to keep some  order in some of the rings. The others may be comets or asteroids that have been "captured" by the planet as they attempted  to fly by. This is another of many mysteries about Uranus that scientists are trying to explain. 

  How Did It Get Its Name?
       Uranus was the first planet to be discovered by an astronomer. It was discovered, accidentally, by British astronomer  William Herschel in 1781. This meant that someone had to come up with a name for the new planet. Herschel named it  "Georgium Sidus", after the King of England at that time, George III (the King that Americans rebelled against). This seemed  fair to Herschel, since the King was paying for his research. Grownups being what they are, others called the planet Herschel,  in honor of the discoverer. Another astronomer suggested the name Uranus, an ancient Greek god who was the father of Saturn, so the new planet would have a name from mythology like the rest of the planets at that time, and that name was
       finally agreed on by everybody in the mid 1800's. 

  What Is It Made Of?
       Uranus is another member of the family of gas planets that live in our solar system, but it is quite a bit different from Jupiter and Saturn. First, it has methane gas mixed in with the hydrogen and helium that make up most of the giant planets. Methane is what gives Uranus its unusual color. Second, Uranus appears to have a core, or center, of melted rock, which changes into a dirty ocean made of of water, ammonia and other elements the further from the center you go. Finally, the dirty ocean changes into the blue-green cover of clouds that we see in the pictures. Scientists believe that the layer of the  planet are not separate, like those of an onion, but gradually blend with one another. 

  What's It Like On The Surface?
       Since Uranus is a gas planet, it doesn't have a solid surface like we have here on Earth. The top layer of gas that we see is  far from quiet, though. By carefully studying the pictures sent back by the Voyager spacecraft, scientists were able to see  that there are winds blowing at over four hundred miles an hour!


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