Friday, September 14, 2018

Uranus smells rotten

Although we already knew that Uranus is probably one of the most hostile places for life in the Solar System, now we have one more reason not to travel to this planet: its smell. And is that a team of scientists has just shown that in the upper layers of the atmosphere of Uranium abounds hydrogen sulfide, a gas responsible for the classic smell of rotten eggs.

The researchers, who publish their work in the journal Nature Astronomy, have discovered that this noxious gas swirls in the clouds of the giant planet. Although it was something that was suspected, nobody until now had been able to demonstrate the composition of these clusters.

Why is it so difficult to study the composition of Uranus clouds? According to Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, when a layer of clouds is formed by condensation, the forming gas is trapped in an internal deposit at such low levels that it is very difficult to detect it by most of the instruments used up to now. "Only a small amount remains above the clouds in the form of saturated steam," explains the scientist.

The discovery was possible thanks to the Gemini North telescope, located in Mauna Kea (Hawaii), with which the researchers were able to capture the Sun's light by reflecting on the upper layer of the Uranian clouds and analyzing it by spectrometry. "Thanks to the improved data from the hydrogen sulfide absorption line and the wonderful Gemini spectra, we have the fingerprint we needed to 'catch' the culprit," explains Patrick Irwin, a researcher at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study. "The lines we tried to detect were very weak, but due to the high sensitivity of the Gemini spectrometer and the good weather conditions at Mauna Kea we were able to detect them unequivocally."

Exploring the history of our Solar System

The work highlights the differences between the so-called "gaseous giants" (Jupiter and Saturn) and the "ice giants" (Uranus and Neptune). While in the former it is ammonia that is detected in the clouds, in Uranus, and possibly in Neptune as well, hydrogen sulfide is the main component. According to Leigh, these differences would have originated from the moment of the birth of the planets. "During the formation of the Solar System, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur - and therefore between ammonia and hydrogen sulfide - was determined by the temperature and location of each planet."

These findings reveal that, although Uranus' atmosphere is a tremendously unpleasant place for humans, this vast world is a fertile ground for exploring the history of our Solar System and perhaps also for understanding the conditions that exist in other large icy planets that orbit stars beyond our Sun.

With its discovery, the team of researchers has also found a new application for the large telescope. "This work is a new and innovative use for an instrument originally designed to analyze the explosive environments around black holes located in the center of distant galaxies," explains Chris Davis, of the National Science Foundation (USA) , one of the funders of the Gemini telescope. "Using it to solve a mystery in our Solar System is a new application with a lot of potential for future research."

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