Uranus Orbit and Rotation

Uranus Orbit and Rotation

Uranus travels around the sun in an elliptical (oval-shaped) orbit, which it completes in 30,685 Earth days, or just over 84 Earth years. As it orbits the sun, Uranus also rotates on its axis, an imaginary line through its center. The planet's interior (ocean and core) takes 17 hours 14 minutes to spin around once on its axis. However, much of the atmosphere rotates faster than that. The fastest winds on Uranus, measured about two-thirds of the way from the equator to the south pole, blow at about 450 miles per hour (720 kilometers per hour). Thus, this area toward the south pole makes one complete rotation every 14 hours.


Uranus is tilted so far on its side that its axis lies nearly level with its path around the sun. Scientists measure the tilt of a planet relative to a line at a right angle to the orbital plane, an imaginary surface touching all points of the orbit. Most planets' axes tilt less than 30. For example, the tilt of Earth's axis is about 23 1/2. But Uranus's axis tilts 98 degrees, so that the axis lies almost in the orbital plane. Many astronomers think that a collision with an Earth-sized planet may have knocked Uranus on its side soon after it was formed.


Uranus has a mass (quantity of matter) 14 1/2 times larger than that of Earth. However, the mass of Uranus is only about 1/20 as large as that of the largest planet, Jupiter.


Uranus has an average density of 1.27 grams per cubic centimeter, or about 1 1/4 times the density of water. Density is the amount of mass in a substance divided by the volume of the substance. The density of Uranus is 1/4 that of Earth, and is similar to that of Jupiter.


The force of gravity at the surface of Uranus is about 90 percent of that at the surface of Earth. Thus, an object that weighs 100 pounds on Earth would weigh about 90 pounds on Uranus.


The atmosphere of Uranus is composed of about 83 percent hydrogen, 15 percent helium, 2 percent methane, and tiny amounts of ethane and other gases. The atmospheric pressure beneath the methane cloud layer is about 19 pounds per square inch (130 kilopascals), or about 1.3 times the atmospheric pressure at the surface of Earth. Atmospheric pressure is the pressure exerted by the gases of a planet's atmosphere due to their weight.


The visible clouds of Uranus are the same pale blue-green all over the surface of the planet. Images of Uranus taken by Voyager 2 and processed for high contrast by computers show very faint bands within the clouds parallel to the equator. These bands are made up of different concentrations of smog produced as sunlight breaks down methane gas. In addition, there are a few small spots on the planet's surface. These spots probably are violently swirling masses of gas resembling a hurricane.


The temperature of the atmosphere is about -355 degrees F (-215 degrees C). In the interior, the temperature rises rapidly, reaching perhaps 4200 degrees F (2300 degrees C) in the ocean and 12,600 degrees F (7000 degrees C) in the rocky core. Uranus seems to radiate as much heat into space as it gets from the sun. Because Uranus is tilted 98 on its axis, its poles receive more sunlight during a Uranian year than does its equator. However, the weather system seems to distribute the extra heat fairly evenly over the planet.