A new study of Uranus’ large moons released today shows four may hold water, reflecting a surprising volume of water in a remote part of our universe. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, re-analysis of data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, along with new computer modeling, has led NASA scientists to conclude that four of Uranus’ largest moons likely contain an ocean layer between their cores and icy crusts. In all, there are 27 moons that circle Uranus.
The study probed the five largest moons that orbit around Uranus: Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, and Miranda. Based on this work, four of those moons have oceans that could be dozens of miles deep.
Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, the new work could inform how a future mission might investigate the moons, but the paper also has implications that go beyond Uranus, said lead author Julie Castillo-Rogez of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
“When it comes to small bodies – dwarf planets and moons – planetary scientists previously have found evidence of oceans in several unlikely places, including the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, and Saturn’s moon Mimas,” she said. “So there are mechanisms at play that we don’t fully understand. This paper investigates what those could be and how they are relevant to the many bodies in the solar system that could be rich in water but have limited internal heat.”
Researchers used computer models from previous NASA missions to gauge how porous the Uranian moons’ surfaces are, finding that they’re likely insulated enough to retain the internal heat that would be needed to host an ocean. In addition, they found what could be a potential heat source in the moons’ rocky mantles, which release hot liquid, and would help an ocean maintain a warm environment. Scientists believe the ocean environment may be warm enough on Titania and Oberon to potentially support habitability.
More research will be done on Uranus in the months ahead. The National Academies’ 2023 Planetary Science and Astrobiological Decadal Survey prioritized exploring Uranus.
“This recommended portfolio of missions, high-priority research activities, and technology development will produce transformative advances in human knowledge and understanding about the origin and evolution of the solar system, and of life and the habitability of other bodies beyond Earth,” said Robin Canup, an assistant vice president of the Planetary Sciences Directorate at the Southwest Research Institute and a co-chair of the survey’s steering committee, in a National Academies release.
Not much is known about Uranus at this point. Scientists believe the environment is extraordinarily smelly and the planet is mysteriously emitting X-Rays. Beyond that, scientists hope additional research to be conducted around the planet and its moons may also help answer questions scientists may have about Earth.