Uranus X-Rays are Probably Reflected Sunlight, but There Could be Another Source as Well

X-rays offer a unique insight into the astronomical world.  Invisible to the naked eye, most commonly they are thought of as the semi-dangerous source of medical scans.  However, X-ray observatories, like the Chandra X-ray Observatory are capable of seeing astronomical features that no other telescope can.  Recently scientists found some of those X-rays coming from a relatively unexpected source – Uranus.

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Uranus’ Moons are Surprisingly Similar to Dwarf Planets in the Kuiper Belt

Astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus—and two of its moons—230 years ago. Now a group of astronomers working with data from the telescope that bears his name, the Herschel Space Observatory, have made an unexpected discovery. It looks like Uranus’ moons bear a striking similarity to icy dwarf planets.

The Herschel Space Observatory has been retired since 2013. But all of its data is still of interest to researchers. This discovery was a happy accident, resulting from tests on data from the observatory’s camera detector. Uranus is a very bright infrared energy source, and the team was measuring the influence of very bright infrared objects on the camera.

The images of the moons were discovered by accident.

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The Moons of Uranus Are Fascinating Enough On Their Own That We Should Send a Flagship Mission Out There

What’s the most interesting fact you know about Uranus? The fact that its rotational axis is completely out of line with every other planet in the solar system?  Or the fact that Uranus’ magnetosphere is asymmetrical, notably tilted relative to its rotational axis, and significantly offset from the center of the planet?  Or the fact that it’s moons are all named after characters from Shakespeare or Alexander Pope?

All of those facts (with the exception of the literary references) have come from a very limited dataset. Some of the best data was collected during a Voyager 2 flyby in 1986. Since then, the only new data has come from Earth-based telescopes.  While they’ve been steadily increasing in resolution, they have only been able to scratch the surface of what may be lurking in the system surrounding the closest Ice Giant.  Hopefully that is about to change, as a team of scientists has published a white paper advocating for a visit from a new Flagship class spacecraft.

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A Simulation of Sunsets on Other Worlds: From Venus to Titan

When we think of exploring other planets and celestial bodies, we tend to focus on the big questions. How would astronauts live there when they’re not working? What kind of strategies and technology would be needed for people to be there long term? How might the gravity, environment, and radiation effect humans who choose to make places like the Moon, Mars, and other bodies place their home? We tend to overlook the simple stuff…

For example, what will it be like to look up at the sky? How will Earth, the stars, and any moon in orbit appear? And how will it look to watch the sun go down? These are things we take for granted here on Earth and don’t really ponder much. But thanks to NASA, we now have a tool that simulates what sunsets would look like from other bodies in the Solar System – from the hellish surface of Venus to the dense atmosphere of Uranus.

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New Find Shows Uranus Loses Atmosphere to its Magnetic Field

You may never look at Uranus the same way again. It’s always worth combing through data from old space missions for new finds.

NASA’s researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center recently did just that, looking at Voyager 2’s lone encounter with the planet Uranus to uncover an amazing find, as the planet seems to be losing its atmosphere to it’s lop-sided magnetic field at a high rate. The finding was published in a recent edition of Geophysical Research: Letters.

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Uranus’ Rings are Surprisingly Bright in Thermal Emissions

During the late 1970s, scientists made a rather interesting discovery about the gas giants of the Solar System. Thanks to ongoing observations using improved optics, it was revealed that gas giants like Uranus – and not just Saturn – have ring systems about them. The main difference is, these ring systems are not easily visible from a distance using conventional optics and require exceptional timing to see light being reflected off of them.

Another way to study them is to observe their planet in infrared or radio wavelengths. This was recently demonstrated by a team of astronomers who conducted observations of Uranus using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT). In addition to obtaining temperature readings from the rings, they confirmed what many scientists have suspected about them for some time.

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Hubble Shows off the Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune

Like Earth, Uranus and Neptune have season and experience changes in weather patterns as a result. But unlike Earth, the seasons on these planets last for years rather than months, and weather patterns occur on a scale that is unimaginable by Earth standards. A good example is the storms that have been observed in Neptune and Uranus’ atmosphere, which include Neptune’s famous Great Dark Spot.

During its yearly routine of monitoring Uranus and Neptune, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) recently provided updated observations of both planets’ weather patterns. In addition to spotting a new and mysterious storm on Neptune, Hubble provided a fresh look at a long-lived storm around Uranus’ north pole. These observations are part of Hubble‘s long-term mission to improve our understanding of the outer planets.

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Something Twice the Size of Earth Slammed into Uranus and Knocked it Over on its Side

Between 3 to 4 billion years ago, a body twice the size of Earth impacted Uranus, knocking the ice giant onto its side. Image Credit: Jacob A. Kegerreis/Durham University

Astronomers think they know how Uranus got flipped onto its side. According to detailed computer simulations, a body about twice the size of Earth slammed into Uranus between 3 to 4 billion years ago. The impact created an oddity in our Solar System: the only planet that rotates on its side.

A study explaining these findings was presented at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting in Washington DC held between December 10th to 14th. It’s led by Jacob Kegerreis, a researcher at Durham University. It builds on previous studies pointing to an impact as the cause of Uranus’ unique orientation. Taken altogether, we’re getting a clearer picture of why Uranus rotates on its side compared to the other planets in our Solar System. The impact also explains why Uranus is unique in other ways.
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New Insights Into What Might Have Smashed Uranus Over Onto its Side

Uranus

The gas/ice giant Uranus has long been a source of mystery to astronomers. In addition to presenting some thermal anomalies and a magnetic field that is off-center, the planet is also unique in that it is the only one in the Solar System to rotate on its side. With an axial tilt of 98°, the planet experiences radical seasons and a day-night cycle at the poles where a single day and night last 42 years each.

Thanks to a new study led by researchers from Durham University, the reason for these mysteries may finally have been found. With the help of NASA researchers and multiple scientific organizations, the team conducted simulations that indicated how Uranus may have suffered a massive impact in its past. Not only would this account for the planet’s extreme tilt and magnetic field, it would also explain why the planet’s outer atmosphere is so cold.

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Hallelujah, It’s Raining Diamonds! Just like the Insides of Uranus and Neptune.

For more than three decades, the internal structure and evolution of Uranus and Neptune has been a subject of debate among scientists. Given their distance from Earth and the fact that only a few robotic spacecraft have studied them directly, what goes on inside these ice giants is still something of a mystery. In lieu of direct evidence, scientists have relied on models and experiments to replicate the conditions in their interiors.

For instance, it has been theorized that within Uranus and Neptune, the extreme pressure conditions squeeze hydrogen and carbon into diamonds, which then sink down into the interior. Thanks to an experiment conducted by an international team of scientists, this “diamond rain” was recreated under laboratory conditions for the first time, giving us the first glimpse into what things could be like inside ice giants.

The study which details this experiment, titled “Formation of Diamonds in Laser-Compressed Hydrocarbons at Planetary Interior Conditions“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. Led by Dr. Dominik Kraus, a physicist from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf Institute of Radiation Physics, the team included members from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC Berkeley.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

For decades, scientists have held that the interiors of planets like Uranus and Neptune consist of solid cores surrounded by a dense concentrations of “ices”. In this case, ice refers to hydrogen molecules connected to lighter elements (i.e. as carbon, oxygen and/or nitrogen) to create compounds like water and ammonia. Under extreme pressure conditions, these compounds become semi-solid, forming “slush”.

And at roughly 10,000 kilometers (6214 mi) beneath the surface of these planets, the compression of hydrocarbons is thought to create diamonds. To recreate these conditions, the international team subjected a sample of polystyrene plastic to two shock waves using an intense optical laser at the Matter in Extreme Conditions (MEC) instrument, which they then paired with x-ray pulses from the SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS).

As Dr. Kraus, the head of a Helmholtz Young Investigator Group at HZDR, explained in an HZDR press release:

“So far, no one has been able to directly observe these sparkling showers in an experimental setting. In our experiment, we exposed a special kind of plastic – polystyrene, which also consists of a mix of carbon and hydrogen – to conditions similar to those inside Neptune or Uranus.”

The plastic in this experiment simulated compounds formed from methane, a molecule that consists of one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms. It is the presence of this compound that gives both Uranus and Neptune their distinct blue coloring. In the intermediate layers of these planets, it also forms hydrocarbon chains that are compressed into diamonds that could be millions of karats in weight.

The MEC hutch of SLAC’s LCLS Far Experiement Hall. Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The optical laser the team employed created two shock waves which accurately simulated the temperature and pressure conditions at the intermediate layers of Uranus and Neptune. The first shock was smaller and slower, and was then overtaken by the stronger second shock. When they overlapped, the pressure peaked and tiny diamonds began to form. At this point, the team probed the reactions with x-ray pulses from the LCLS.

This technique, known as x-ray diffraction, allowed the team to see the small diamonds form in real-time, which was necessary since a reaction of this kind can only last for fractions of a second. As Siegfried Glenzer, a professor of photon science at SLAC and a co-author of the paper, explained:

“For this experiment, we had LCLS, the brightest X-ray source in the world. You need these intense, fast pulses of X-rays to unambiguously see the structure of these diamonds, because they are only formed in the laboratory for such a very short time.”

In the end, the research team found that nearly every carbon atom in the original plastic sample was incorporated into small diamond structures. While they measured just a few nanometers in diameter, the team predicts that on Uranus and Neptune, the diamonds would be much larger. Over time, they speculate that these could sink into the planets’ atmospheres and form a layer of diamond around the core.

The interior structure of Neptune. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

In previous studies, attempts to recreate the conditions in Uranus and Neptune’s interior met with limited success. While they showed results that indicated the formation of graphite and diamonds, the teams conducting them could not capture the measurements in real-time. As noted, the extreme temperatures and pressures that exist within gas/ice giants can only be simulated in a laboratory for very short periods of time.

However, thanks to LCLS – which creates X-ray pulses a billion times brighter than previous instruments and fires them at a rate of about 120 pulses per second (each one lasting just quadrillionths of a second) – the science team was able to directly measure the chemical reaction for the first time. In the end, these results are of particular significance to planetary scientists who specialize in the study of how planets form and evolve.

As Kraus explained, it could cause to rethink the relationship between a planet’s mass and its radius, and lead to new models of planet classification:

“With planets, the relationship between mass and radius can tell scientists quite a bit about the chemistry. And the chemistry that happens in the interior can provide additional information about some of the defining features of the planet… We can’t go inside the planets and look at them, so these laboratory experiments complement satellite and telescope observations.”

This experiment also opens new possibilities for matter compression and the creation of synthetic materials. Nanodiamonds currently have many commercial applications – i.e. medicine, electronics, scientific equipment, etc, – and creating them with lasers would be far more cost-effective and safe than current methods (which involve explosives).

Fusion research, which also relies on creating extreme pressure and temperature conditions to generate abundant energy, could also benefit from this experiment. On top of that, the results of this study offer a tantalizing hint at what the cores of massive planets look like. In addition to being composed of silicate rock and metals, ice giants may also have a diamond layer at their core-mantle boundary.

Assuming we can create probes of sufficiently strong super-materials someday, wouldn’t that be worth looking into?

Further Reading: SLAC, HZDR, Nature Astronomy