Prior to 1986, only five of Uranus's natural satellites were known: Titania, the largest, and Oberon were discovered by Herschel in 1787; Ariel and Umbriel, by William Lassell in 1851; and Miranda, by Gerard Kuiper in 1948. When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus in 1986, it discovered 10 more natural satellites—Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Cressida, Desdemona, Juliet, Portia, Rosalind, Belinda, and Puck—and confirmed the existence of 11 rings. Two additional satellites, Caliban and Sycorax, were discovered in 1997, and three more, Prospero, Setebos, and Stephano, were found in 1999. Trinculo, a small irregular satellite, was discovered in 2002; eight other small satellites are also irregular, that is, their motion around Uranus is retrograde (motion opposite to that of the planet's rotation). The moons of Uranus are named after characters found in the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
Titania along with Oberon and Umbriel appear geologically to be relatively quiet. Ariel has surface features that indicate past seismic activity. Miranda shows the most dramatic surface of all, with fracture patterns and sudden landscape changes that indicate that the moon fell apart and then reassembled after a collision in its early history. In 1977, during an occultation by Uranus of a star, astronomers detected a system of nine narrow rings of small, dark particles orbiting around the planet; two more rings, many tiny ringlets, and arcs of rings were later found by Voyager 2. Uranus's rings are distinctly different from those of Jupiter and Saturn. For example, Saturn's rings are very bright and easily seen but Uranus's are very dark, with only 5% of the sunlight being reflected back. Uranus's rings also are very narrow and flat. The widest part of Uranus's outermost ring, the epsilon ring, is 60 mi (97 km) across. The others are only 1 to 2 mi (1.5–3.2 km) wide and barely half a mile (0.8 km) deep.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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