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Uranus Stinks: How Astronomers Determined Rotten Egg-Like Smell Of The Planet

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Astronomers are able to reconcile a longstanding debate that Uranus's atmosphere is composed of hydrogen sulfide, the gas that gives rotten eggs a foul odor.

Scientists previously hypothesized that the clouds surrounding Uranus's atmosphere may be composed of either of hydrogen sulfide or ammonia. There has not been any definitive answer until researchers from the University of Oxford in the UK captured data using the Gemini North telescope located at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Details of the study were published in the April 23 edition of Nature Astronomy.

How Scientists 'Smell' Uranus

In 1986, NASA sent Voyager 2 on a mission to visit Uranus and Neptune as part of its "grand tour of discovery" project. Cochair at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Amy Simon said the mission is to study the composition of Uranus and its moons.

"This study argues the importance of exploring at least one of these planets and its entire environment, which includes surprisingly dynamic icy moons, rings, and bizarre magnetic fields," said Mark Hofstadter of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Scientists at the Mauna Kea observatory dissected the infrared light from Uranus using Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer.

"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 Patrick Irwin, lead author and a professor of planetary physics at the University of Oxford.

Chris Davis of the National Science Foundation said that the use of the NIFS to solve one of the mysteries of the Solar System "is a powerful extension of its use."

The twin Gemini telescopes, located in Hawaii and at the summit of Cerro Pachon in Chile, are designed to provide the best quality image possible for a ground telescope of its size. It is also intended to achieve the lowest possible emissivity, which is crucial in infrared observation from the ground.

"They also are significantly higher reflectivity than aluminum at wavelengths longer than about 400nm, but have reduced performance in the ultraviolet. The Gemini telescopes are the only large telescopes in the world with silver-coated primary mirrors," according to the Gemini Observatory website.

Scientists said that the recent information provides a contrasting view of Uranus compared to the inner gas planets Jupiter and Saturn. They added this could shed some light on the history and evolution of the so-called ice planet. The two biggest planets in the solar system reportedly are composed of ammonia ice.

Interesting Theories

As astronomers confirmed the primary component in Uranus's atmosphere, they also supported the notion that Solar System planets likely have migrated from their initial location.

Researchers said the stench odor as a result of hydrogen sulfide concentrations would be the least of the problems when humans descend on Uranus's clouds.

Although a limited amount of hydrogen sulfide was used for observation, the study authors said it is reasonable to speculate that Uranus offers "very unpleasant" conditions. Humans will likely suffer from suffocation and exposure to sub-zero temperatures of up to negative 200 degrees Celsius.

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