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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

Uranus smells like farts, astronomers have confirmed — and the discovery indicates there was 'a big shakeup' early in the solar system 90

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

Uranus smells like farts, astronomers have confirmed — and the discovery indicates there was 'a big shakeup' early in the solar system 91
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 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.

Uranus smells like farts, astronomers have confirmed — and the discovery indicates there was 'a big shakeup' early in the solar system 92
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.




KOI-5Ab, the curious planet that orbits in a system of three suns

KOI-5Ab, the curious planet that orbits in a system of three suns 99
Photo: (Caltech / R. Hurt (IPAC))

To us, the Sun alone seems perfectly normal, but our solar system is actually a strange exception.

Most stars in the Milky Way galaxy have at least one companion star. In a system 1,800 light-years away, astronomers have finally confirmed the existence of a gas giant planet orbiting stars in a triple star system.

Called KOI-5, the system is located in the constellation Cygnus, and the exoplanet was confirmed ten years after it was first detected by the Kepler space telescope.

In fact, the planet – now known as KOI-5Ab – was discovered by Kepler when it began operations back in 2009.

“KOI-5Ab was dropped because it was difficult and we had thousands of other candidates,” astronomer David Siardi of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute said.

“There were lighter dives than the KOI-5Ab, and every day we learned something new from Kepler, so the KOI-5 was almost forgotten.”

Exoplanet hunters tend to avoid the complexities of multi-star systems; of the more than 4,300 exoplanets confirmed to date, less than 10 percent are multi-star systems, although such systems dominate the galaxy. As a result, little is known about the properties of exoplanets in multi-star systems compared to those orbiting a lone star.

After Kepler’s discovery, Chardy and other astronomers used ground-based telescopes such as the Palomar Observatory, Keck Observatory, and the Gemini North Telescope to study the system. By 2014, they had identified two companion stars, KOI-5B and KOI-5C.

Scientists were able to establish that the planet KOI-5Ab, is a gas giant that is about half the mass of Saturn and 7 times the size of Earth, and is in a very close five-day orbit around KOI-5A. KOI-5A and KOI-5B, both of roughly the same mass as the Sun, form a relatively close binary system with an orbital period of about 30 years.

KOI-5Ab, the curious planet that orbits in a system of three suns 100

A third star, KOI-5C, orbits the binary system at a much greater distance, with a period of about 400 years – slightly longer than Pluto’s 248-year orbit.

“By studying this system in more detail, perhaps we can understand how planets are created in the universe.”

The discovery was announced at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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Why the universe does not fit into science

Why the universe does not fit into science 101
Photo: YouTube

Science can be compared to an artist painting what he has never seen, or to a writer describing other people’s travels: objects that he has never seen, places where he has never been. Sometimes such scientific “arts” turn out to be beautiful and interesting, but most of them will forever remain only theories, because they are beyond human capabilities.

In fact, science has the right only to speculate: how our universe appeared, how old it is, how many stars and other objects it contains.

Universe model

Why the universe does not fit into science 102

How many stars are there in the sky?

With an unarmed eye, a person can see about nine thousand stars in the sky in one cloudless and moonless night. And armed with binoculars or a telescope, much more – up to several million. However, this is much less than their true number in the universe. Indeed, only in our one galaxy (the Milky Way) there are about 400 billion stars. The exact amount, of course, is not known to science. And the visible universe contains about 170 billion galaxies.

It is worth clarifying that scientists can see the universe 46 billion light years deep in all directions. And the visible (observable) universe includes the space accessible to our eyes from the moment of the Big Explosion. In other words, only this (accessible to human perception) space science refers to our universe. Science does not consider everything that follows.

It is believed that there are supposedly a ceptillion (10 to 24 degrees) stars in our universe. These are theoretical calculations based on the approximate size and age of the universe. The origin of the universe is explained by the Big Bang theory. This is why the universe is constantly expanding and the more time passes, the more complex the universe and its components become.

Why the universe does not fit into science 103

It is not entirely correct to consider and perceive this scientific theory “head-on”. Scientists always claim that that explosion was not exactly an explosion, and the point that exploded was not the only one. After all, it was everywhere, because space did not exist then. And in general – everything happened quite differently from what is described in the Big Bang theory, but all other descriptions of the origin of the universe are even more incredible and inaccurate.

Separate but interconnected

That which is beyond the reach of human perception is usually discarded by science, or recognized as non-existent. Recognizing one thing, science does not want to recognize the existence of the other, although everything in our world is interconnected and is not able to exist separately – by itself.

Each object of the universe is a part of it much more than an independent, separate object.

Any person, like any material object of our world, consists of components: organs, cells, molecules, atoms. And each of its constituent parts can represent the whole world. Separate, and at the same time connected with all the others.

However, science, as a rule, perceives all the components of the universe – people, animals, plants, objects, the Earth, the Sun, other planets and stars – as separate subjects, thereby limiting itself.

Why the universe does not fit into science 104

Even what is considered the visible universe, one of the atoms of which could be called our solar system, is not subject to the boundaries of human perception. But perhaps the atom is an exaggeration, and our solar system is not even an atom, but one of its elements!

How, being so far from the truth, can one reason about something with the degree of probability with which science tries to reason about the origin of the universe?

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An unexplained wobble shifts the poles of Mars

An unexplained wobble shifts the poles of Mars 105

The red planet sways from side to side like a whirligig when it loses speed. The new study allowed scientists to notice that the poles of Mars deviate slightly from the axis of rotation of the planet. On average, they move 10 cm from the center with a period of 200 days.

Such changes are called the Chandler Oscillations  – after the American astronomer Seth Chandler, who discovered them in 1891. Previously, they were only seen on Earth. It is known that the displacement of the poles of rotation of our planet occurs with a period of 433 days, while the amplitude reaches 15 meters. There is no exact answer why this is happening. It is believed that the fluctuations are influenced by processes in the ocean and the Earth’s atmosphere.

Chandler’s wobbles on Mars are equally perplexing. The authors of the study discovered them by comparing data from 18 years of studying the planet. The information was obtained thanks to three spacecraft that orbit the Red Planet: Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global Surveyor. 

Since Mars has no oceans, it is likely that the Red Planet’s wobbly rotation is due to changes in atmospheric pressure. This is the first explanation that researchers have shared. In the future, there should be new details about the fluctuations that have so interested the scientific community.

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