Titania as seen by Voyager 2. © NASA / JPL / USGS

Uranus’s satellites are red

Hi there! Today, we speak about the satellites of Uranus. They have been visited only once by a spacecraft, i.e. Voyager 2 in 1986, but we dispose of Earth-based facilities, which are able to give us some clues. The study I present today, Red material on the large moons of Uranus: Dust from irregular satellites? discusses the fact that the main moons appear to be redder than the large moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Let me define redder first: the surface of these bodies reflects the Solar incident light. A spectral decomposition of the reflected light tells us something on the material coating the surface. And the relative response of the surface in the different wavelengths is higher in the infrared for the large moons of Uranus, than it is for the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

This study, by Richard Cartwright et al., has recently been published in Icarus.

The satellites of Uranus

First: Uranus. This is the seventh planet of our Solar System, which orbits in 84 years, and which seems to roll on its orbit. Actually, its rotation axis is tilted by nearly 90° (actually 97.8°), and its main satellites and rings orbit close to its equatorial plane. Their orbits are tilted as well.

The satellites of Uranus, all named after Shakespeare’s characters, can be categorized into 3 groups:

  1. The 13 small, inner satellites, which are embedded into the rings,
  2. the 5 main ones,
  3. and the 9 irregular satellites, which orbit much further from Uranus, and which orbits may be tilted. Contrary to the other two groups, they have probably not been formed in the proto-Uranus nebula, but were former asteroids, which have been trapped by Uranus.

You can find below some properties and orbital characteristics of the main satellites. All of these bodies have been discovered from the Earth. These are the targets of the study I present.

Discovery Semimajor axis Eccentricity Inclination Orbital period Mean diameter
Miranda 1948 129,900 km 0.0013 4.338° 1.413 d 471.6 km
Ariel 1851 190,900 km 0.0012 0.041° 2.520 d 1,157.8 km
Umbriel 1851 266,000 km 0.0039 0.128° 4.144 d 1,169.4 km
Titania 1787 436,300 km 0.0011 0.079° 8.706 d 1,577.8 km
Oberon 1787 583,500 km 0.0014 0.068° 13.46 d 1,522.8 km

You can see that they have limited eccentricities and inclinations, except for the inclination of Miranda, which probably results from a past resonant forcing by Umbriel. In the past, the orbital period of Umbriel was exactly thrice the one of Miranda, and this has forced its inclination, which was thus initially very small. Anyway, it remains close to the equatorial plane for Uranus.

You can see below that things are different for the small satellites.

Discovery Semimajor axis Eccentricity Orbital period Mean diameter
Francisco 2001 4,282,900 km 0.13 267 d ≈22 km
Caliban 1997 7,231,100 km 0.18 580 d ≈72 km
Stephano 1999 8,007,400 km 0.22 677 d ≈32 km
Trinculo 2001 8,505,200 km 0.22 749 d ≈18 km
Sycorax 1997 12,179,400 km 0.52 1,288 d ≈150 km
Margaret 2003 14,146,700 km 0.68 1,661 d ≈20 km
Prospero 1999 16,276,800 km 0.44 1,978 d ≈50 km
Setebos 1999 17,420,400 km 0.59 2,225 d ≈48 km
Ferdinand 2001 20,430,000 km 0.40 2,790 d ≈20 km

These are very small bodies, which orbit very far from Uranus, on eccentric orbits. Besides, their orbital planes have just nothing to do with the equatorial plane of Uranus. This is why we believe they are former asteroids. Beside Margaret, they all orbit on retrograde orbits, while all the regular moons are prograde. Discovering them required to use telescopes of a least 5 m, the satellites discovered in 2003 having been discovered during a systematic survey with the Subaru telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, over a field of 3.5 degrees. They all have apparent magnitudes larger than 20.

Only one space mission visited them: Voyager 2, in January 1986.

Voyager 2 at Uranus

The spacecraft Voyager 2 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in August 1977. It benefited from a favorable geometrical configuration of the 4 giant planets to visit all of them. Unfortunately, this required the spacecraft to travel too fast to permit an orbital insertion. So, contrary to Cassini which toured around Saturn during 13 years, Voyager 2 just passed by.

Its closest approach to Uranus was on January 24, 1986, at a distance of 81,500 km from the planet’s cloud tops. It permitted the discovery of 11 inner satellites, and partly imaged the large ones. It revealed in particular geological features on Miranda, and analyzed the light reflected by the surface of these bodies. The study we discuss today supplements these measurements.

Miranda seen by Voyager 2. © NASA/JPL/USGS
Miranda seen by Voyager 2. © NASA/JPL/USGS

Observations at IRTF

The authors used NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility (IRTF). This is a 3-meter telescope, optimized for infrared astronomy. It is located at the Mauna Kea Observatory (altitude: 4,200 m) in Hawaii (USA), and 50% of the observation time is devoted to planetary observation.
Several instruments are available, the authors used the spectrograph-imager SpeX, which decomposes the incident light between 0.8 and 5.4 µm. In that study, the authors limited to 4.2 µm.

NASA's InfraRed Telescope Facility at Maune Kea, Hawaii. © Afshin Darian
NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility at Maune Kea, Hawaii. © Afshin Darian

The outcome of such observations is a plot amplitude vs. wavelength of a given surface element of a satellite. It is interesting to keep in mind that the regular moons rotate synchronously, permanently showing the same face to Uranus. The consequence is that they have a leading and a trailing hemisphere. During their orbital motion, the same hemisphere always leads. And this has implications for the surface composition, because the leading hemisphere can be polluted by the dusty environment. In other words: when you observe something on the leading hemisphere, which is not present on the trailing one, this is probably pollution.

When you observe, you actually observe the surface element which faces you. And this depends on the dynamics of the planet.

Geometrical constraints

As you know, Uranus rolls on its orbit, while the satellites have an equatorial orbit. As a consequence, during a 84-y orbit of Uranus around the Sun, the Earth crosses twice the orbital plane, and two periods are favorable for the observation of the poles of Uranus and the satellites. The northern hemispheres of these bodies face us during half the orbit (42 years), while the southern ones face us during the other half.

The last transition happened in 2007. Since then, the northern hemispheres of the satellites face us. And part of the visible face belongs to the leading hemisphere.

A red leading side

The results show that for Ariel and Umbriel, and even more for Titania and Oberon, the leading hemisphere is significantly redder than the trailing one, while it is not the case for the major satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. Titania and Oberon are the outermost of the satellites of Uranus, and the largest ones as well.

To understand the chemical nature of this reddening, previous studies have conducted lab experiments, consisting in reproducing the spectrum of mixtures of chemical elements, which could be found on the natural satellites of the outer planets. Of course, the conditions of temperature and pressure are considered. Then the spectrums are compared to the actually observed ones. And it appears that the reddening agents should be tholins and pyroxene.

Titania seems to have a red spot on its surface, which makes it the redder of the main Uranian satellites. Contrariwise, Miranda does not present this reddening. Latitudinal variations of color are not obvious, while they are in longitude, since they depend on the leading / trailing effect.

Now, the question is: how did these agents reach the satellites? They are probably not endogenous, since similar satellites around Jupiter and Saturn do not have them.

Pollution by the irregular moons

The smoking gun is the irregular moons: they are pretty red. And numerical simulations of the motion of dust expelled from these satellites by impacts show how they are likely to coat the leading sides of Oberon, Titania, Ariel and Umbriel.
And this is what we observe!

Of course, a space mission to Uranus would be very helpful… but this is another story.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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