Rings of Uranus reveal secrets of the planet’s moon Cressida

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 variations in an inner ring of the planet as Uranus passed in front of a distant star. The team found that the density of the moon is 0.86 grams per cubic centimeter and its mass is 2.5×1017 kilograms. The results, reported August 28 on arXiv.org, are the first to reveal details about the moon. Knowing its density and mass helps researchers determine if and when Cressida might collide with another of Uranus’ moons and what will become of both of them.

Voyager 2 discovered Cressida and several other moons when the spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986. Those moons, and two discovered later, orbit within 20,000 kilometers of Uranus and are the most tightly packed in the solar system.

Such close quarters puts the moons on collision courses. Based on the newly calculated mass and density of Cressida, simulations suggest it will slam into another moon, Desdemona, in a million years.

Cressida’s density suggests it is made of water ice with some contamination by a dark material. If the other moons have similar compositions, the moon collisions may happen in the more distant future than researchers thought. Determining what the moons are made of will also reveal their ultimate fate after a collision: whether they merge, bounce off each other or shatter into millions of pieces.

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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