Explaining the low luminosity of Uranus: A self-consistent thermal and structural evolution

Allona Vazan, Ravit Helled

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The low luminosity of Uranus is a long-standing challenge in planetary science. Simple adiabatic models are inconsistent with the measured luminosity, which indicates that Uranus is non-adiabatic because it has thermal boundary layers and/or conductive regions. A gradual composition distribution acts as a thermal boundary to suppress convection and slow down the internal cooling. Here we investigate whether composition gradients in the deep interior of Uranus can explain its low luminosity, the required composition gradient, and whether it is stable for convective mixing on a timescale of some billion years. We varied the primordial composition distribution and the initial energy budget of the planet, and chose the models that fit the currently measured properties (radius, luminosity, and moment of inertia) of Uranus. We present several alternative non-adiabatic internal structures that fit the Uranus measurements. We found that convective mixing is limited to the interior of Uranus, and a composition gradient is stable and sufficient to explain its current luminosity. As a result, the interior of Uranus might still be very hot, in spite of its low luminosity. The stable composition gradient also indicates that the current internal structure of Uranus is similar to its primordial structure. Moreover, we suggest that the initial energy content of Uranus cannot be greater than 20% of its formation (accretion) energy. We also find that an interior with a mixture of ice and rock, rather than separated ice and rock shells, is consistent with measurements, suggesting that Uranus might not be "differentiated". Our models can explain the luminosity of Uranus, and they are also consistent with its metal-rich atmosphere and with the predictions for the location where its magnetic field is generated.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberA50
JournalAstronomy and Astrophysics
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknolw edgements. We like to thank the referee and the editor for constructive comments that improved the paper. R.H. acknowledges support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Grant No. 200021_169054. We acknowledge fruitful discussions within the ISSI “Formation of the Ice Giants” team meeting.

Publisher Copyright:
© ESO 2020.


  • Planets and satellites
  • Uranus
  • composition
  • formation
  • individual
  • interiors
  • physical evolution


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