A Colossal Collision Knocked Uranus Into A Jaunty Angle


A massive collision forever tilted Uranus into a jaunty angle and may be why the planet is so cold.

According to new research, a young protoplanet roughly twice the size of Earth is responsible for changing Uranus’ orientation and dooming the world to freezing temperatures.

An international team of astronomers, led by Durham University in the UK, ran a number of high-resolution computer simulations to try to figure out how the icy planet evolved into its current state.


A NASA Hubble Space Telescope view reveals Uranus surrounded by its four major rings and by 10 of its 17 known satellites. (Credit: NASA/JPL/STScI)

“Uranus spins on its side, with its axis pointing almost at right angles to those of all the other planets in the solar system. This was almost certainly caused by a giant impact, but we know very little about how this actually happened and how else such a violent event affected the planet,” said lead author Jacob Kegerreis, PhD researcher in Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, in a statement.

“We ran more than 50 different impact scenarios using a high-powered supercomputer to see if we could recreate the conditions that shaped the planet’s evolution.

“Our findings confirm that the most likely outcome was that the young Uranus was involved in a cataclysmic collision with an object twice the mass of Earth, if not larger, knocking it on to its side and setting in process the events that helped create the planet we see today.”

The theory that Uranus was knocked over by a massive collision isn’t new, but these simulations also suggest that the debris from the impact could have formed a thin shell near the edge of the planet’s ice layer, trapping the heat form Uranus’ core. That would partly explain the intensely cold temperature of the outer atmosphere, which is around -357 degrees Fahrenheit.

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