Uranus Clouds Smell Like Rotten Eggs

Posted: Apr 23 2018, 10:20am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
Uranus Clouds Smell Like Rotten Eggs
This image of a crescent Uranus, taken by Voyager 2 on January 24th, 1986, reveals its icy blue atmosphere. Despite Voyager 2’s close flyby, the composition of the atmosphere remained a mystery until now. Image credit: NASA/JPL

New research reveals a space stink.

Researchers at the Gemini observatory revealed a hidden secret of Uranus. Hydrogen sulfide, the gas that gives rotten eggs their distinctive odor, permeates the upper atmosphere of the planet Uranus.

Based on sensitive spectroscopic observations with the Gemini North telescope, astronomers uncovered the noxious gas swirling high in the giant planet’s cloud tops.

Even after decades of observations, and a visit by the Voyager 2 spacecraft, Uranus held on to one critical secret, the composition of its clouds. Now, one of the key components of the planet’s clouds has finally been verified.

Patrick Irwin from the University of Oxford, UK and global collaborators spectroscopically dissected the infrared light from Uranus captured by the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Maunakea.

They found hydrogen sulfide, the odiferous gas that most people avoid, in Uranus’s cloud tops. The findings are published in the April 23rd issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

"The Gemini data, obtained with the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS), sampled reflected sunlight from a region immediately above the main visible cloud layer in Uranus’s atmosphere. “While the lines we were trying to detect were just barely there, we were able to detect them unambiguously thanks to the sensitivity of NIFS on Gemini, combined with the exquisite conditions on Maunakea,” said Irwin. “Although we knew these lines would be at the edge of detection, I decided to have a crack at looking for them in the Gemini data we had acquired.”

“This work is a strikingly innovative use of an instrument originally designed to study the explosive environments around huge black holes at the centers of distant galaxies,” said Chris Davis of the United State’s National Science Foundation, a leading funder of the Gemini telescope. “To use NIFS to solve a longstanding mystery in our own Solar System is a powerful extension of its use.” Davis adds.

The new findings indicate that although the atmosphere might be unpleasant for humans, this far-flung world is fertile ground for probing the early history of our Solar System and perhaps understanding the physical conditions on other large, icy worlds orbiting the stars beyond our Sun.

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/2" rel="author">Luigi Lugmayr</a>
Manfred "Luigi" Lugmayr () is the founding Chief Editor of I4U News and brings over 25 years experience in the technology field to the ever evolving and exciting world of gadgets, tech and online shopping. He started I4U News back in 2000 and evolved it into vibrant technology news and tech and toy shopping hub.
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