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Uranus smells like farts, astronomers have confirmed — and the discovery indicates there was ‘a big shakeup’ early in the solar system

A photo of Uranus taken by Voyager 2 in 1986 (edited to show its moon and rings).NASA/JPL-Caltech

  • Uranus is one of the solar system’s most mysterious planets.
  • Scientists had long believed that the “ice giant” world has clouds of hydrogen sulfide, a compound that smells bad to people, but they couldn’t be certain.
  • New telescope observations confirm the planet is clouded by the chemical.
  • The discovery may help astronomers further unravel the twisted history of the solar system‘s formation.

Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun, has held a vital (and smelly) secret of the solar system for decades.

An international team of researchers reported on Monday that they’ve discovered evidence that Uranus holds one of the most unpleasant-smelling chemicals known to humankind.

“They found hydrogen sulfide, the odiferous gas that most people avoid, in Uranus’s cloud tops,” according to a press release from Gemini Observatory, a high-power telescope atop a Hawaiian volcano.

Voyager 2 was the only spacecraft ever to visit the chilly, blue-green “ice giant.” The probe tried to see which chemicals were in Uranus’ clouds during its 1986 flyby, but it couldn’t tell scientists for certain.

Now, however, astronomers have used an instrument at the Gemini Observatory to “sniff” the planet’s gases from Earth. Their discovery could help write the book on when and where the planets of the solar system formed — and if they ever switched places.

“This is evidence of a big shakeup early on in the solar system’s formation,” Glenn Orton, a co-author of the new study and a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Business Insider. “There was definitely a migration taking place.”

The journal Nature Astronomy published the findings on Monday.

Why it took so long to detect Uranus’s stinky clouds

The reason most people avoid hydrogen sulfide is because the compound is a signature ingredient in the scent of rotten eggs — and farts.

Humans can smell hydrogen sulfide when it makes up as little as three out of every billion molecules in the air, the EPA says. At higher concentrations, such as near volcanic areas, it can be poisonous. Breathing a concentration of a few hundred parts per million can kill a person in about half an hour, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“If an unfortunate human were ever to descend through Uranus’s clouds, they would be met with very unpleasant and odiferous conditions,” Patrick Irwin, a physicist at the University of Oxford who led the new study, said in the press release. But he added that “suffocation and exposure” to Uranus’ -200 degree Celsius temperatures “would take its toll long before the smell.”

Researchers had long suspected that Uranus’s atmosphere was laced with hydrogen sulfide, and in concentrations dozens of times higher than at Saturn or Jupiter.

They couldn’t be certain, though, since Uranus orbits the sun from 1.85 billion miles away.

The vast distance, aside from making the planet distant and difficult to study, leads to blisteringly cold temperatures that freezes hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen-sulfide ice can form clouds, but the solid crystals are hard for chemical-analyzing instruments called spectrometers to study. (The method works far better with liquids and gases.)

Irwin and others suspected there were at least whiffs of hydrogen sulfide gas drifting above the clouds. And now, thanks to an extremely sensitive Gemini instrument that can see light invisible to humans, Irwin said scientists “have the fingerprint which caught the culprit.”

Why the discovery might ‘shake up’ ideas about the solar system’s evolution

An artist’s conception of the dust and gas surrounding a newly formed planetary system.

Astronomers like Irwin have an interest in hydrogen sulfide on Uranus that goes far beyond the gas’ smell.

The discovery of hydrogen sulfide may help piece together the story of how the solar system formed and arranged itself some 4.6 billion years ago. Figuring out the exact makeup of distant planets could help determine where in the solar system they first formed — and how far they migrated away from the sun afterward.

Like all planets, Uranus and Neptune formed from a giant disk of gas and dust that shrouded the sun some 4.6 billion years ago. The planets are mostly made of heavier elements, and didn’t balloon with lightweight hydrogen and helium gases.

“Uranus and Neptune never had the time to grow into gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn,” Imke de Pater, an astronomer at the University of California Berkeley who wasn’t involved in the study, wrote in an accompanying article in Nature Astronomy. “The composition of a celestial body is a fundamental parameter in determining its formation and evolutionary history.”

The two planets failed to become gas giants (and instead became “ice giants”) for two main reasons.

First, the solar system’s early disk of dust and gas grew more diffuse farther out from the sun. With less material available, it took Uranus and Neptune longer to form.

Second, this slower formation gave the sun more time to blow hydrogen and helium out of the solar system with its stellar winds— before Uranus and Neptune could grow massive enough to capture it with their gravity.

“Giant planets form really fast, in a few million years,” Kevin Walsh, who studies planet formation at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, told Space.com in March. “That creates a time limit because the gas disk around the sun only lasts 4 to 5 million years.”

Scientists agree on this much, but Orton said they have “too many theories” about the migration of Uranus and Neptune, which came next.

A true-color photo of Uranus (left) and a false color image (right) taken at the turn of 1986 by NASA’s Voyager 2 probe.

One leading idea says the planets coalesced millions of miles closer to the sun, then quickly migrated outward.

But Orton said the newly detected hydrogen sulfide — and a strange lack of ammonia in the Gemini Observatory readings — suggest the planets actually formed farther out, then moved inward. (The ratio of the two molecules suggests the worlds were once even colder than they are today.)

To solve the question once and for all, Orton says researchers need to send spacecraft to plunge through the clouds of Uranus, not unlike how the Cassini probe dove into Saturn. The goal: figure out the exact abundances of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, among other gases, and use the readings to pin the exact birth locations of Uranus and Neptune.

“We’re working on that now,” Orton said, referring to a proposal for a new Uranus probe.

Source www.businessinsider.com

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Space

Voyager 2 has discovered something amazing: Denser space outside the solar system

In November 2018, after a 41-year voyage, Voyager 2 crossed the boundary beyond which the Sun’s influence ends, and entered interstellar space. But the mission of the little probe is not yet complete – it continues to make amazing discoveries

Perhaps the probes have found some kind of traffic jam at the edge of the solar system. The Voyager flight continues and we will soon find out what it was.

Voyager 2 discovered something amazing: as the distance from the Sun increases, the density of space increases.

Voyager 1, which entered interstellar space in 2012, transmitted similar indicators to Earth. New data have shown that the increase in density may be a feature of the interstellar medium.

The solar system has several boundaries, one of which, called the heliopause, is determined by the solar wind, or rather by its significant weakening. The space inside the heliopause is the heliosphere, and the space outside is the interstellar medium. But the heliosphere is not round. It looks more like an oval, in which the solar system is at the leading edge, and a kind of tail stretches behind it.

Both Voyagers crossed the heliopause at the leading edge, but within 67 degrees heliographic latitude and 43 degrees longitude apart.

Interstellar space is usually considered a vacuum, but this is not entirely true. The density of matter is extremely small, but it still exists. In the solar system, the solar wind has an average density of protons and electrons from 3 to 10 particles per cubic centimeter, but it is lower the further from the Sun.

The average concentration of electrons in the interstellar space of the Milky Way is estimated to be about 0.037 particles per cubic centimeter. And the plasma density in the outer heliosphere reaches approximately 0.002 electrons per cubic centimeter. When the Voyager probes crossed the heliopause, their instruments recorded the electron density of the plasma through plasma oscillations.

Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause on August 25, 2012 at a distance of 121.6 astronomical units from the Earth (121.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun – about 18.1 billion km). When he first measured plasma oscillations after crossing the heliopause on October 23, 2013 at a distance of 122.6 astronomical units (18.3 billion km), he found a plasma density of 0.055 electrons per cubic centimeter.

After flying another 20 astronomical units (2.9 billion kilometers), Voyager 1 reported an increase in the density of interstellar space to 0.13 electrons per cubic centimeter.

Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause on November 5, 2018 at a distance of 119 astronomical units (17.8 billion kilometers. On January 30, 2019, it measured plasma oscillations at a distance of 119.7 astronomical units (17.9 billion kilometers), finding that the density plasma is 0.039 electrons per cubic centimeter.

In June 2019, Voyager 2’s Instruments showed a sharp increase in density to about 0.12 electrons per cubic centimeter at a distance of 124.2 astronomical units (18.5 billion kilometers).

What caused the increase in the density of space? One theory is that the lines of force of the interstellar magnetic field become stronger with distance from the heliopause. This can cause electromagnetic ion cyclotron instability. Voyager 2 did detect an increase in the magnetic field after crossing the heliopause.

Another theory is that the material carried away by the interstellar wind should slow down in the heliopause, forming a kind of plug, as evidenced by the weak ultraviolet glow detected by the New Horizons probe in 2018, caused by the accumulation of neutral hydrogen in the heliopause.

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Space

NASA has banned fighting and littering on the moon

New details of the agreement signed by representatives of a number of countries on the development of the moon and the extraction of minerals within the framework of the Artemis program have appeared. Reported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

So, astronauts involved in the mission are prohibited from littering and fighting on the territory of a natural satellite of the Earth.

So, we present to you the new rules for being on the Moon:

Everyone comes in peace;

Confidentiality is prohibited, all launched objects must be identified and registered;

All travel participants agree to help each other in case of emergencies;

All received data is transferred to the rest of the participants, and space systems must be universal;

Historic sites must be preserved and all rubbish must be disposed of;

Rovers and spacecraft should not interfere with other participants.

“”It is important not only to go to the moon with our astronauts, but also that we bring our values ​​with us,” said Mike Gold, acting head of NASA’s international and inter-agency relations.

According to him, violators of the above rules will be asked to “just leave” the territory of the moon.

The effect of these principles so far applies to eight signatory countries of the agreement: the USA, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Countries other than China can join if they wish.

 It should be noted that at the moment NASA is prohibited from signing any bilateral agreements with the PRC leadership.

The first NASA mission to the moon, known as “Artemis 1”, is scheduled for 2021 without astronauts, and “Artemis 2” will fly with a crew in 2023.

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Space

Methane snow found on the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains

Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above the surface of the planet.

In the images of the Cthulhu region – a dark region in the equatorial regions of Pluto – planetary scientists have found large reserves of methane snow that covers the peaks of local mountains and hills. It formed quite differently from how snow forms on Earth, astronomers write in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

“The white caps on the tops of Pluto’s mountains did not arise from the cooling of air currents that rise along the slopes into the upper atmosphere, as it happens on Earth, but from the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above Pluto’s surface. This gas condensed on the mountain tops, “the scientists write.

We owe almost everything we know about Pluto to the New Horizons interplanetary station. It was launched in January 2006, and in mid-July 2015 the station reached the Pluto system. New Horizons flew just 13 thousand km from the dwarf planet, taking many photographs of its surface. 

New Horizons data indicated an interesting feature of Pluto – in its depths, a giant subglacial ocean of liquid water can be hidden. It can be a kind of engine of those geological processes, traces of which can be seen on the surface of a dwarf planet. Because of this discovery of New Horizons, many discussions began among planetary scientists. Scientists are trying to understand how such a structure could have arisen, as well as to find out the appearance of Pluto in the distant past.

Members of the New Horizons science team and their colleagues from France, led by planetary scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center (USA) Tanguy Bertrand, have discovered another unusual feature of Pluto. They studied the relief of one of the regions of the dwarf planet – the Cthulhu region. This is what astronomers call a large dark region at Pluto’s equator, which is whale-like in shape and is covered in many craters, mountains and hills.

Snow in Pluto’s mountains

By analyzing images of these structures taken by the LORRI camera installed on board New Horizons, astronomers have noticed many blank spots on the slopes of the highest mountain peaks. Having studied their composition, scientists have found that they consist mainly of methane.

Initially, planetary scientists assumed that these are deposits of methane ice. However, Bertrand and his colleagues found that the slopes and even the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains are actually covered not only with ice, but also with exotic methane snow that forms right on their surface.

Planetary scientists came to this conclusion by calculating how methane behaves in Pluto’s atmosphere. In doing so, they took into account how the molecules of its gases interact with the sun’s rays and other heat sources. It turned out that at the equator of Pluto, at an altitude of 2-3 km from its surface, due to the special nature of the movement of winds, unique conditions have formed, due to which snow is formed from methane vapor.

Unlike Earth, where such deposits are formed as a result of the rise of warm air into the upper atmosphere, on Pluto this process goes in the opposite direction – as a result of contact of the cold surface of the peaks and slopes of mountains with warm air masses from the relatively high layers of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

Previously, as noted by Bertrand and his colleagues, scientists did not suspect that this was possible. The fact is that they did not take into account that due to the deposition of even a small amount of methane snow and ice, the reflectivity of the peaks and slopes of mountains in the Cthulhu region increases. As a result, their surface temperature drops sharply, and snow forms even faster.

Scientists suggest that another mysterious feature of Pluto’s relief could have arisen in a similar way – the so-called Tartarus Ridges, located east of the Sputnik plain. A distinctive feature of this mountainous region is strange peaks that are shaped like skyscrapers or blades. Bertrand and his colleagues suggest that these peaks are also methane ice deposits that grow “from top to bottom.”

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