Uranus, surely the most frequently disrespected planet in our solar system, may host a pair of tiny hidden moons.
Uranus already has 27 known moons (which, fun fact, are named for Shakespearean characters instead of the usual Greek and Roman mythological figures). But now researchers think they've found signs of “moonlet wakes” (wow, this is all sounding way more poetic than I expected of a post about Uranus) in the planet's outer rings. These wavy relics could point to a pair of tiny, previously undiscovered moons orbiting close to the gas giant.
The oft-maligned seventh planet has only been visited once — when NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft zipped by 30 years ago. But University of Idaho doctoral student Rob Chancia spotted something new when analyzing the 1980s-era data. He and Matt Hedman, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Idaho, will soon publish their results in the Astronomical Journal.
If the moons exist, Chancia and Hedman say, they're probably less than nine miles in diameter. Given the dark surface materials that cover previously discovered Uranian moons, it wouldn't be shocking if the innermost pair had avoided detection.
The moons could serve to corral the planet's inner ring — keeping it in place by passing through periodically and helping distribute the smaller particles of gas and rock.
“The problem of keeping rings narrow has been around since the discovery of the Uranian ring system in 1977 and has been worked on by many dynamicists over the years,” Chancia said in a statement. “I would be very pleased if these proposed moonlets turn out to be real and we can use them to approach a solution.”
If researchers can't find the moons using the Hubble, they may have to wait for another spacecraft — perhaps even an orbiter — to go exploring Uranus's shadows.