The planet Uranus
The planet Uranus
Photograph courtesy Marcos van Dam, W. M. Keck Observatory

Mission to Uranus

Get the facts on Uranus, a planet with a sideways axis.

You can’t help but tilt your head as you watch Uranus creep closer on your spaceship’s view screen. Something about this big ball of bluish-green gas just seems ... off. A closer look at the planet’s cloud bands and 13 faint rings gives you your answer: Uranus is off its rocker! Scientists suspect that a planet-size object knocked Uranus sideways in the early days of its formation. It has spun like a top toppling over ever since, which makes for some oddball seasons and decades devoid of even a glint of the sun’s faint light. The north pole is locked in more than 20 years of darkness in the winter and just as much sunlight in the summer, yet the temperature varies little here on the solar system’s coldest planet. Crank up the ship’s heater, young astronaut. You have wandered far from the sun.

Like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus is a gas giant—a ball of gas surrounding an Earth-size core of hot liquids. More specifically, Uranus is considered an “ice giant” because its atmosphere is composed mostly of “icy” water, ammonia, and methane. Researchers have found that Uranus’ crushing atmosphere can compress methane into precious rocks. Those methane clouds drifting far below your ship might be raining diamonds.

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Katherine Johnson
Space Explorer