Bifurcation in the history of uranus and neptune: The role of giant impacts

Christian Reinhardt, Alice Chau, Joachim Stadel, Ravit Helled

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite many similarities, there are significant observed differences between Uranus and Neptune: While Uranus is tilted and has a regular set of satellites, suggesting their accretion from a disc, Neptune’s moons are irregular and are captured objects. In addition, Neptune seems to have an internal heat source, while Uranus is in equilibrium with solar insulation. Finally, structure models based on gravity data suggest that Uranus is more centrally condensed than Neptune. We perform a large suite of high-resolution SPH simulations to investigate whether these differences can be explained by giant impacts. For Uranus, we find that an oblique impact can tilt its spin axis and eject enough material to create a disc where the regular satellites are formed. Some of the discs are massive and extended enough, and consist of enough rocky material to explain the formation of Uranus’ regular satellites. For Neptune, we investigate whether a head-on collision could mix the interior, and lead to an adiabatic temperature profile, which may explain its larger flux and higher moment of inertia value. We find that massive and dense projectiles can penetrate towards the centre and deposit mass and energy in the deep interior, leading to a less centrally concentrated interior for Neptune. We conclude that the dichotomy between the ice giants can be explained by violent impacts after their formation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5336-5353
Number of pages18
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Hydrodynamics
  • Planets
  • Planets and satellites: formation
  • Planets and satellites: individual: Neptune
  • Planets and satellites: individual: Uranus
  • Planets and satellites: interiors
  • Satellites: Solar system


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