Monday, 15 October 2012

No chance without Uranus

In 1977, i wrote a story about a holiday on Uranus, set in 2177.  In it, apart from anything else i predicted the use of the controversial terahertz radiation body scanners now used for security purposes in airports, and it was one of the first sustained stories i wrote.

There is a serious lack of stories set on Uranus.  I can only think of one other and i've forgotten its name.  It appears in 'The Science Fictional Solar System', a collection of stories linked by their use of facts refuted by the time they were collected, in the case of Uranus the rings.

The reason i think people avoid writing about the planet is the name.  It's either pronounced "your anus" or "urinous", more often the former.  Neither are conducive for a sensible reaction.  Maybe it should just be renamed.  Oddly, it was going to be called Neptune at first, but it was decided that the motives were too nationalistic because it was in celebration of great British sea victories.  Presumably it would be called that in the "Forward and Backward" timeline.

Even so, Uranus has interesting possibilities as a setting.  It's the coldest planet in the Solar System because it has little internal heat compared to Neptune, so in spite of being closer to the Sun it's not as "warm".  It's also slightly denser as water on average, and has a surface gravity close to ours but slightly lower.  It is also remarkable in being visible to nocturnal animals but not humans, making it potentially the only planet to have been discovered by other animals before us in a sense, and maybe even "discovered" by our ancestors millions of years ago and then lost again as we became diurnal.  It was also observed many times through telescopes before it was actually realised that it was in fact a planet.  The idea of a new planet was itself new at the time.  William Herschel, who is credited as discovering it, lived almost exactly one Uranian year.  It orbits on its side with one pole facing the Sun for half a Uranian year, or forty-two of our own, as do its moons, but the Sun is so weak at that distance that it doesn't make too much difference, although there are seasonal winds blowing between the hemispheres.  Uranus is also the most featureless of all the planets, and the only aquamarine one due to methane haze.

One good, human, thing about Uranus is that uniquely among the satellite systems of this Solar System, the moons are named after British characters, mainly from Shakespeare.  The large, "classic" moons are named, from the outside in, Oberon, Titania, Umbriel, Ariel and Miranda.  I actually get this wrong in the video, as you will see:


(the last two are the wrong way round).

The rings were discovered on 10th March 1977 when astronomers observing the star SAO 158687 to see what would happen when Uranus passed in front of it out of interest in its atmospheric competition were surprised to find that it blinked on and off as it passed behind something else nearby on each side.  The rings are very dark and hard to see against the background of space, and in fact if you did want to see them nearby there would be no chance without Uranus being behind them.  However, the moon Mab orbits inside a lighter, bluer ring made of particles of water ice, which you probably could see.  The inner rings are made of an unknown material, possibly something organic darkened by radiation.  Uranus was the second planet to be found to have rings.

This video, incidentally, is part of a series i'm making which will eventually form a playlist taking the viewer on a tour of the Solar System.  Here's the first one:

I plan to work in from Neptune, although there will also be one on "Persephone", the non-existent Planet X and why it isn't called that or regarded as a planet.  More failure to let go of the past on my part of course.

There is a technical problem with both of these videos.  Namely, perhaps because of the codec, the orbits look awful.  I'm planning to resolve this before the next astronomical video.  Or, i could just avoid using orbits at all.