Cataclysmic collision shaped Uranus' evolution

3 July 2018

Uranus was hit by a massive object roughly twice the size of Earth that caused the planet to tilt and could explain its freezing temperatures, according to new research.

Astronomers at Durham University led an international team of experts to investigate how Uranus came to be tilted on its side and what consequences a giant impact would have had on the planet’s evolution.

The team ran the first high-resolution computer simulations of different massive collisions with the ice giant to try to work out how the planet evolved.

The research confirms a previous study that said Uranus’ tilted position was caused by a collision with a massive object – most likely a young proto-planet made of rock and ice – during the formation of the solar system about 4 billion years ago.

The simulations also suggested that debris from the impactor could form a thin shell near the edge of the planet's ice layer and trap the heat emanating from Uranus’ core. The trapping of this internal heat could in part help explain Uranus’ extremely cold temperature of the planet’s outer atmosphere, the researchers said.

The research was funded by STFC, The Royal Society, NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory and the findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Find out more on the Durham research news page.

Last updated: 03 July 2018

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