Uranus And Neptune As Methane Planets: Producing Icy Giants From Refractory Planetesimals

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
June 1, 2024
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Uranus And Neptune As Methane Planets: Producing Icy Giants From Refractory Planetesimals
Reprocessed images show the true colors of Uranus (left) and Neptune. — University of Oxford

Uranus and Neptune are commonly considered ice giants, and it is often assumed that, in addition to a solar mix of hydrogen and helium, they contain roughly twice as much water as rock.

This classical picture has led to successful models of their internal structure and has been understood to be compatible with the composition of the solar nebula during their formation (Reynolds and Summers 1965; Podolak and Cameron 1974; Podolak and Reynolds 1984; Podolak et al. 1995; Nettelmann et al. 2013). However, the dominance of water has been recently questioned (Teanby et al. 2020; Helled and Fortney 2020; Podolak et al. 2022).

Planetesimals in the outer solar system are composed mainly of refractory materials, leading to an inconsistency between the icy composition of Uranus and Neptune and the ice-poor planetesimals they accreted during formation (Podolak et al. 2022).

Here we elaborate on this problem, and propose a new potential solution. We show that chemical reactions between planetesimals dominated by organic-rich refractory materials and the hydrogen in gaseous atmospheres of protoplanets can form large amounts of methane ‘ice’. Uranus and Neptune could thus be compatible with having accreted refractory-dominated planetesimals, while still remaining icy.

Using random statistical computer models for a wide parameter space, we show that the resulting methane-rich internal composition could be a natural solution, giving a good match to the size, mass and moment of inertia of Uranus and Neptune, whereas rock-rich models appear to only work if a rocky interior is heavily mixed with hydrogen.

Our model predicts a lower than solar hydrogen to helium ratio, which can be tested. We conclude that Uranus, Neptune and similar exoplanets could be methane-rich, and discuss why Jupiter and Saturn cannot.

Mass fraction of CH4 vs. water/rock mass ratio (logarithmic). Each point denotes a
random interior model, color coded by its central temperature. The dashed vertical line indicates
equal fractions of water and rock. The right (left) dotted vertical line indicates a water/rock mass
ratio of 2 (0.5). — astro-ph.EP

Uri Malamud, Morris Podolak, Joshua Podolak, Peter Bodenheimer

Comments: Submitted to Icarus
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Cite as: arXiv:2403.12512 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:2403.12512v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Submission history
From: Uri Malamud
[v1] Tue, 19 Mar 2024 07:28:48 UTC (1,612 KB)
Astrobiology, Astrochemistry,

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