Moons of Uranus face future collision

photo of Uranus taken by Voyager in 1986

In 1986, Voyager 2 discovered a clutch of moons orbiting Uranus. Figuring out how massive the moons are and what they’re made of gives clues to their ultimate fate.

Erich Karkoschka/Univ. of Arizona, Voyager 2, NASA

If you could put Uranus’ moon Cressida in a gigantic tub of water, it would float.

Cressida is one of at least 27 moons that circle Uranus. Robert Chancia of the University of Idaho in Moscow and colleagues calculated Cressida’s density and mass using visible variations in an inner ring of Uranus as the planet passed in front of a distant star. The moon’s density is 0.86 grams per cubic centimeter and its mass is 2.5 x 1017 kilograms. These results, reported online August 28 at, are the first to reveal any details about the moon. Knowing its density and mass helps researchers determine if and when Cressida might collide with another of Uranus’ moons.

Voyager 2 discovered Cressida and several other moons when the spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986. Those moons, plus two others found later, are the most tightly packed in the solar system and orbit within 20,000 kilometers of Uranus. Such close quarters puts the moons on collision courses. Based on the newly calculated mass and density of Cressida, simulations suggest that it will slam into the moon Desdemona in under a million years. Cressida’s density indicates it is made of mostly water ice. If the other moons have similar compositions, they may have lower than expected masses, which means this and other collisions may happen in the more distant future. Determining what the moons are made of may also reveal their post-collision fate: Will they merge, bounce off of each other or shatter?

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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