Research

Stop sniggering at the back: Uranus smells like rotten eggs

Stop sniggering at the back: Uranus smells like rotten eggs

At this concentration, an astronaut sniffing Uranus' air would sense a rotten-egg, fart-like smell (ignoring the fact that the cold and the rest of the atmosphere's composition would kill him).

Although it might smell foul, Uranus has many valuable lessons to teach scientists about the early history of the solar systems and the conditions required for icy worlds to form around stars light-years away from our sun.

Scientists confirm that Uranus' atmosphere contains hydrogen sulfide, a compound long suspected to be swirling about in the planet's clouds. "And this is why it is so challenging to capture the signatures of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide above cloud decks of Uranus".

Hydrogen sulfide is a gas best known for its repulsive smell; the gas emanates from sewers and volcanoes on Earth, explaining why some hot springs, which are fed by geothermally heated water, smell like breakfast gone bad.

"Now, thanks to improved hydrogen sulphide absorption-line data and the wonderful Gemini spectra, we have the fingerprint which caught the culprit", said co-author Patrick Irwin, from the University of Oxford.

There are now no plans to send NASA missions to Uranus, but since a year ago, the agency has supported research to revisit the icy planet, according to Inverse.

Using an instrument called the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS) at the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, researchers determined that Uranus' cloud cover is composed of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, which is what gives rotten eggs their distinctive, noxious scent.

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To draw their conclusion, the scientists involved in the study looked at sunlight that was reflected above the visible cloud layer and discovered the hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere. Spectroscopic measurements work by breaking down infrared (IR) light from the source - Uranus- into component wavelengths. These planets have thick atmospheres filled with upper clouds of ammonia ice.

"Only a tiny amount [of hydrogen sulfide] remains above the clouds as a saturated vapor", Fletcher said, and this made detection a challenge.

'Suffocation and exposure in the negative 200 degrees Celsius atmosphere made of mostly hydrogen, helium, and methane would take its toll long before the smell'.

The new information is interesting to researchers, but it also adds a unique bit of sensory information to our understanding of the solar system.

The discovery marks another distinction between the ice giants - Uranus and Neptune - and the gas giants - Jupiter and Saturn.

Being rather far off in our solar system, there are still a lot of details about Uranus that we haven't figured out yet, and one big mystery was the composition of its atmosphere.


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