13.5 Magnetospheres and Internal Structure

Voyager 2 found that both Uranus and Neptune have fairly strong internal magnetic fields—about 100 times stronger than Earth's field and 1/10 as strong as Saturn's. However, because the radii of Uranus and Neptune are so much larger than the radius of Earth, the magnetic fields at the cloud tops—spread out over far larger volumes than the field on Earth—are actually comparable in strength to Earth's field. Uranus and Neptune each have substantial magnetospheres, populated largely by electrons and protons either captured from the solar wind or created from ionized hydrogen gas escaping from the planets themselves.

When Voyager 2 arrived at Uranus, it discovered that the planet's magnetic field is tilted at about 60 to the axis of rotation. On Earth, such a tilt would put the north magnetic pole somewhere in the Caribbean. Furthermore, the magnetic field lines are not centered on the planet. It is as though Uranus's field were due to a bar magnet that is tilted with respect to the planet's rotation axis and displaced from the center by about one-third the radius of the planet. Figure 13.9 compares the magnetic field structures of Earth and those of the four jovian planets. The locations and orientations of the bar magnets represent the observed planetary fields, and the sizes of the bars indicate magnetic field strength.

Figure 13.9 A comparison of the magnetic field strengths, orientations, and offsets in the four jovian planets: (a) Jupiter, (b) Saturn, (c) Uranus, (d) Neptune. The planets are drawn to scale, and in each case the magnetic field is represented as though it came from a simple bar magnet. The size and location of each magnet represent the strength and orientation of the planetary field. Notice that the fields of Uranus and Neptune are significantly offset from the center of the planet and are significantly inclined to the planet's rotation axis. Earth's magnetic field is shown for comparison.

Because dynamo theories generally predict that the magnetic axis should be roughly aligned with the rotation axis—as on Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun—the misalignment on Uranus suggested to some researchers that perhaps the planet's field had been caught in the act of reversing. (Sec. 7.5) Another possibility was that the oddly tilted field was in some way related to the planet's axial tilt—perhaps one catastrophic collision skewed both axes at the same time. Those ideas evaporated in 1989 when Voyager 2 found that Neptune's field is also inclined to the planet's rotation axis, at an angle of 46 (see Figure 13.9d), and also substantially offset from the center. It now appears that the internal structures of Uranus and Neptune are different from those of Jupiter and Saturn, and this difference changes the nature of the field-generation process.

Theoretical models indicate that Uranus and Neptune have rocky cores similar to those found in Jupiter and Saturn—about the size of Earth and perhaps 10 times more massive. However, the pressure outside the cores of Uranus and Neptune (unlike the pressure within Jupiter and Saturn) is too low to force hydrogen into the metallic state, so hydrogen stays in its molecular form all the way in to the planets' cores. Astronomers theorize that deep below the cloud layers, Uranus and Neptune may have high-density, "slushy" interiors containing thick layers of water clouds. It is also possible that much of the planets' ammonia is dissolved in the water, accounting for the absence of ammonia at higher cloud levels. Such an ammonia solution would provide a thick, electrically conducting ionic layer that could conceivably explain the planets' misaligned magnetic fields.

At present, we don't know enough about the interiors of Uranus and Neptune to assess the correctness of this picture. Our current state of knowledge is summarized in Figure 13.10, which compares the internal structures of the four jovian worlds.

Figure 13.10 A comparison of the interior structures of the four jovian planets. (a) The planets drawn to scale. (b) The relative proportions of the various internal zones.

Jovian Planet Part II