Should astronauts ever make a trip to Uranus, they’ll want to hold their breath. Scientists have confirmed that Uranus smells really bad. That’s not a joke — well it is, but it’s also a true fact about the seventh planet in our solar system. The clouds of the gas giant would smell like rotten eggs if you could take a sniff. Of course, you’d have much bigger problems if you were breathing the atmosphere on Uranus. Note: there will be no further jokes in this article, but that won’t stop it from being funny.
Earthlings have sent probes to the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter. We just said goodbye to Saturn’s Cassini probe a few months ago, and Juno is currently surveying Jupiter. However, Uranus is much farther away, and we’ve only visited it once. That was back in the mid 1980s, when the Voyager 2 spacecraft made a flyby maneuver on its way to the outer reaches of the solar system. All study since then has happened from a great distance. Even without a mission to inspect Uranus up close, scientists from Oxford University have been able to determine the composition of its upper cloud layers.
If you found yourself on Uranus, you’d first notice that it’s -228 degrees Fahrenheit (-200 Celsius) and that you’re dead. If you weren’t dead, the pervasive stench of rotten eggs would make you wish you were. That’s because one of the main constituents of Uranus’ clouds is hydrogen sulfide.
Planetary scientists have wondered for years if the atmosphere on Uranus features ammonia ice like Jupiter and Saturn. As it turns out, it’s hydrogen sulfide ice. The researchers made this smelly discovery with the aid of the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS) instrument on the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. The telescope analyzed sunlight reflected off Uranus, noting a strong signal indicating the presence of hydrogen sulfide. Only a fraction of the chemical remains in a gaseous state in the cloud tops, which made it difficult to confirm from here on Earth.
Uranus and Neptune, the so-called “ice giants” of the solar system, both formed further from the sun than Jupiter and Saturn. That accounts for the different composition. It could mean that Neptune, too, smells like rotten eggs. That’s not yet confirmed, and it’s not as funny anyway. We won’t know just how bad either planet smells until someone can send a mission there to sample the unpleasant atmosphere.
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