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Uranus’ Biggest Moons May Have Hidden Underground Oceans

Uranus' biggest moons may have hidden oceans located deep beneath their icy crusts
Uranus’ biggest moons may have hidden oceans located deep beneath their icy crusts. Credit: NASA/JPL / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A new study suggests that four of Uranus’ biggest moons could be hiding secret oceans beneath their icy shells. The moons, named Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon, might be warm enough to sustain liquid water.

The research, which was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, also proposes that the oceans on Titania and Oberon might be warm enough to provide a habitat for living organisms.

Consolidation of data from researchers

A recent study has combined old data from the Voyager 2 mission in the 1980s with newer information gathered by NASA from more recent missions to other icy moons such as Charon and Enceladus. The study focused on Uranus, which has 27 moons, but specifically on its five largest moons.

Among these moons, Titania is the largest, measuring 980 miles (1,580 km) across, while Ariel is the smallest at 720 miles (1,160 kilometers) across. The researchers used data from different NASA missions such as Galileo, Cassini, Dawn, and New Horizons to enhance their analysis.

Scientists had previously believed that only Titania would generate any internal heat via radioactive decay, due to its larger size compared to the other moons.

However, a new study found that the other moons may also retain internal heat, except for Miranda, despite their smaller size. The researchers made this discovery by analyzing the porosity of the moons’ surfaces.

Presence of potential oceans under the icy crusts

The study also found that any potential oceans underneath the icy crusts of these moons would be rich in chlorides, ammonia, and salts.

These substances would lower the freezing point of the water, which means Ariel, Umbrial, Titania, and Oberon could have oceans deep within their interiors that are dozens of miles in depth, given the combination of a low freezing point and enough internal heat.

Miranda also has surface features that suggest a geological activity, but it is believed that any liquid ocean it once had is now frozen.

Verification of the existence of hidden oceans

Scientists will need to come up with creative ways to verify the existence of these hidden oceans. One way to do this is by using spectrometers that can detect wavelengths of light reflected by ammonia and chlorides, which could confirm the presence of these chemicals beneath the moons’ crusts.

Additionally, researchers may use instruments that can detect electrical currents carried by liquid water to investigate beneath the surface of these moons. Future modeling studies on how these moons formed could also assist scientists in planning the appropriate observations necessary to further study these possibly existing oceans.

According to Castillo-Rogez, it is important to take these steps in order to obtain a better understanding of the composition and history of these enigmatic moons. She said, “We need to develop new models for different assumptions on the origin of the moons in order to guide planning for future observations.”

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