Stop sniggering at the back: Uranus smells like rotten eggs


The team estimates the planet's cloud tops to contain around 0.5ppm of the smelly gas and lower clouds to be made up mostly of hydrogen sulfide ice. Detecting either of these substances has been tricky because when these cloud layers form by condensation, the cloud-forming gas is hidden away deep in an internal reservoir, with only tiny quantities remaining above the clouds. 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.

By analyzing infrared light from Uranus using the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Hawaii's Maunakea, an global team of researchers has finally verified a major component of Uranus' upper atmosphere.

The presence of hydrogen sulfide hints at some of the conditions of the early solar system when the gas giants were formed from clouds of gases swirling about the sun. The study was carried out using the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrophotometer.

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Perhaps it shouldn't come as a big surprise, but scientists have long debated whether Uranus smells. The bulk of Jupiter and Saturn's upper clouds are instead comprised of ammonia ice. As the signal from the spectral lines was faint, it is so hard to capture a snap of the ammonia and sulfide existence.

The researchers say these differences in atmospheric composition shed light on questions about the planets' formation and history. Leigh Fletcher conveyed it. Fletcher is the co-author and a recipient of the senior research fellowship at the University of Leicester. "The superior capabilities of Gemini finally gave us that lucky break", concludes Fletcher.

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.

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The detection of hydrogen sulphide high in Uranus' cloud deck, sets up a contrast with inner gas giant planets such as Jupiter and Saturn.

'Now, that part of the puzzle is falling into place as well'.

"If an unfortunate human were to ever descend through Uranus' clouds, they would be met with very unpleasant and odiferous conditions", study co-author Patrick Irwin, a professor of planetary physics at the University of Oxford, said in the statement. "Suffocation and exposure in the negative 200 degrees Celsius [-392 Fahrenheit] atmosphere... would take its toll long before the smell", he said.

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