Tonight's Sky
Sun
Sun
Moon
Moon
Mercury
Mercury
Venus
Venus
Mars
Mars
Jupiter
Jupiter
Saturn
Saturn

Tonight's Sky — Change location

OR

Searching...

Tonight's Sky — Select location

Tonight's Sky — Enter coordinates

° '
° '

Why do astronomers call Uranus and Neptune ice giants?

Douglas Kaupa
Council Bluffs, Iowa

RELATED TOPICS: NEPTUNE | URANUS
ASYSK0719_03
Uranus (left) and Neptune are classified as ice giant planets because their rocky, icy cores are proportionally larger than the amount of gas they contain. The gas giants — Jupiter and Saturn — contain far more gas than rock or ice.
NASA/ JPL-Caltech; NASA

Uranus and Neptune are called ice giants because they are smaller and compositionally different from Jupiter and Saturn, the gas giants. Jupiter and Saturn are composed of mostly hydrogen and helium, with large mantles of metallic hydrogen (which acts like a metal, due to the pressure and temperature within these planets) and only small cores of rock and ice. This is why they are called gas giants: They are mostly gaseous, with very little rock and ice.

Uranus and Neptune are composed of some hydrogen and helium, but they also contain heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. Beneath their relatively thin outer shells of hydrogen and helium, these planets’ mantles are largely made of compressed, slushy water and ammonia. The ice giants’ rocky, icy cores are also proportionally larger than the amount of gas they contain, unlike the gas giants. This is why Uranus and Neptune are called ice giants.

The “ice giant” terminology took hold in the 1990s when researchers realized Uranus and Neptune were compositionally different from Jupiter and Saturn. Classifying them differently better reflects the variations in the formation of the outer planets, giving astronomers a clearer picture of how our solar system and others formed.

Alison Klesman
Associate Editor
0

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Read and share your comments on this article
ADVERTISEMENT

FREE EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter. View our Privacy Policy.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Apollo_RightRail

Click here to download a FREE Apollo PDF curated by Astronomy magazine.