In case you haven’t heard, we’re sending a probe to explore Uranus, so that we can all better understand what’s happening on the surface and deep inside.
I’ll give you a minute to stop laughing.
Everyone from NASA scientists to elementary school teachers knows that Uranus is the most giggle-inducing planet in our solar system. It’s right in the name, which most of us pronounce “your-anus,” despite the fact that a Greek scholar would tell you it should be “YUR-uh-nus.” That’s where most laypeople’s knowledge ends. And scientists barely know more—this strange ice giant has only been visited by human technology once, in 1986 when the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by, snapped some photos, and took some preliminary scientific measurements. We know that one season on Uranus lasts 42 years, it’s the coldest planet in the solar system with some of the fastest winds, and it’s surrounded by a red ring and has a dark spot on it. If that wasn’t enough action for Uranus, in a fitting turn, below the upper atmosphere has what scientists call, “mushballs” which are clumps of water and ammonia. So yes, Uranus is full of stuff.
I’m so sorry. Just hang in there.
In April, as part of the National Science Foundation’s Decadal survey, the NSF advised that NASA’s top planetary priority be a proper mission to explore Uranus. The mission is called for now, the Uranus Orbiter and Probe. Scientists are thrilled that NASA finally decided Uranus deserves a proper probing.
Stick with me.
Uranus wasn’t always going to be called Uranus. When astronomer William Hershel discovered the planet in 1781 he wanted to name it George’s Star after King George III, which would have certainly not been as funny, interesting, or even accurate. Astronomer Johann Bode, who helped discover the planet, agreed with us future folks that George was not the winner and instead wanted to follow with traditional nomenclature of the outer planets, which are named after Roman gods. Jupiter was the father of all gods, Saturn was the father of Jupiter, so Bode thought this new planet should be the father of Saturn: the god of the heavens, Caelus.
For some reason though, Bode broke the pattern for Uranus and used Caelus’ Greek name; it’s still the only planet in our solar system that jumped pantheons. We have no reason to think Bode’s choice was a prank, but it would have been a pretty good one.
But could the giggle factor be making it harder to study, and teach about, Uranus? I asked Paul Byrne, associate professor of Earth and Planetary Science at Washington University, about covering the planet in his classes. “The name is the first thing people latch on to. But it’s also an opportunity, because even with a ‘funny’ name, people are talking about the planet,” he told me over email. “So it’s not so much of a challenge to segue into something like ‘did you know Uranus smells of farts?’ (which it does), which will make people laugh, but now you’re talking about atmospheric composition.”
Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist on the James Webb Telescope Project who’s been studying the outer planets (including Uranus) since working on the Voyager 2 mission, told me that you run into trouble no matter how you pronounce the name. “The name is definitely a distraction. For a while, I tried to educate people about the planetary pronunciation. But then I learned the word ‘urinous’ (the color of urine) and realized that was a lost cause. So now when I talk about Uranus, I usually try to get over this whole issue right away: I tell a bunch of the jokes, and let people get their giggles out.”
Sticking with the “correct” pronunciation can still make some people think about anuses, since it seems like trying to avoid the word. And even YUR-uh-nus isn’t quite right. For some reason along the way the spelling became Latinized to Uranus, and the pronunciation seems to have followed suit. It’s not clear why this nonconforming nomenclature took on the Latinized pronunciation when the name was selected, when in keeping with tradition our seventh planet should really be Ouranos, pronounced like “ore-AN-ose” which would really not lend itself to such laughter.
Butt jokes aside, Uranus is one of the most intriguing planets to call our solar system home. As Byrne said, the planet does smell of farts due to the sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. But if we go even deeper, the pressure is so intense that it breaks up methane molecules and squeezes the resulting carbon so strongly that it creates diamonds. So somewhere deep inside Uranus, it’s raining diamonds.
Soon, though, thanks to the Uranus Orbiter and Probe, we’ll know much more about the planet’s workings. Well, not too soon—projects like this can take decades from creation to launch. Hammel, 62, said, “I am not holding out much hope of my lasting until it arrives at the Uranus system (though I will continue to go to the gym and eat my Wheaties!).” But she knows this science isn’t just for her eyes. “Truly, I am most thrilled for the next generation of young planetary scientists. The Uranus system is going to knock their socks off with amazing discoveries and remarkable science.”
Some of these discoveries may include the cause of the planet’s sideways orbit—the reason why its poles point east to west rather than north to south—and its wonky magnetic field. Scientists also hope to learn what’s happening below the planet’s hazy seafoam atmosphere.
In the decades since Voyager sailed through the outer solar system, scientists and the rest of us have been waiting, hoping that NASA would take us back to the unexplored regions of mysterious moons, icy volcanoes, bizarre plumes, and a stinky tilted teal planet with an unfairly earned bad rap. Every world in the solar system deserves its own mission, and now we can finally look forward to exploring Uranus—together.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.