Scientists Find Proof That Uranus is Full of a Horrible Rotten Egg Smell

Monday, 23 April 2018 - 6:57PM
Space
Solar System
Monday, 23 April 2018 - 6:57PM
Scientists Find Proof That Uranus is Full of a Horrible Rotten Egg Smell
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NASA/JPL
Perhaps it shouldn't come as a big surprise, but scientists have long debated whether Uranus smells

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. We can only make so many guesses from photos, and when Voyager 2 approached the planet in 1986, it didn't have the tools to conclusively determine what the planet's clouds were made of.

Astronomers guessed it was hydrogen sulfide, most well known on Earth for smelling like rotten eggs. But a team of researchers finally managed to confirm the presence of hydrogen sulfide on Uranus, and they managed to do it using an interesting method that nobody had tried before: they pointed a spectroscopic telescope at the planet.




The research team, led by Patrick Irwin from the University of Oxford, travelled to Maunakea in Hawaii so they could use the Gemini North telescope, which is 26 feet (8 meters) long and contains a specialized tool called the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS). The NIFS allowed them to look at infrared light from Uranus, and they found extremely faint traces of hydrogen sulfide lines. 

But faint as it might be, it was conclusive - these "absorption lines" they found were spots where the foul-smelling gas had absorbed infrared light from sunlight. According to Irwin, who said the following in a press statement from the Gemini Observatory:

Opening quote
"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. 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."
Closing quote


Part of the reason why no astronomers had tried this before was because this isn't how the NIFS was intended to be used. The telescope's spectroscopy tool was originally designed to look at distant black holes and study their chaotic surrounding environments. Even the U.S. National Science Foundation, which funds the telescope, was impressed that somebody attempted to use it this way and succeeded.



So now we know for sure: Uranus smells like rotten eggs. Sending astronauts to explore Uranus is extremely low on our list of future space missions, but if we did, it would be a smelly trip for any poor soul who passed through that atmosphere.

And space travel is tough enough as it is without having to deal with a smell like that.
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