Astronomers have found X-rays coming from Uranus for the first time. This may be way crazier than it looks.
Since Voyager 2 was the only spacecraft to ever fly by Uranus, astronomers currently rely on telescopes much closer to Earth, like Chandra and the Hubble Space Telescope, to learn about this distant and cold planet that comprises almost entirely of hydrogen and helium.
A new team of astronomers has recently analyzed observations of Uranus gathered by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in 2002 and 2017. Thus, they found Uranus is belching X-rays.
This is the first time scientists find X-rays from the strange world. It appears most of the X-rays may be reflected emissions from the Sun, but not all of it.
Astronomers have already known that both Jupiter and Saturn scatter X-ray light given off by the sun. And the research suggests Uranus does the same.
But scientists don’t understand all of the activity so they now want to take a closer look.
The team of astronomers wanted to study Uranus in X-rays mainly because of the unusual orientations of its spin axis and its magnetic field.
Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun and has two sets of rings around its equator. The planet, which has four times the diameter of Earth, rotates on its side, making Uranus unique among other planets in the solar system.
You Might Like This: Why Is Uranus On Its Side?
The skewed axes may trigger particularly complicated auroras, which can emit X-rays.
The 2002 and 2017 observations come from different instruments on the Chandra observatory. And in the 2017 data, the researchers can’t clearly mark which X-rays come from Uranus itself and which from elsewhere in the detector’s view.
If further observations confirm that some of the X-rays are present on the planet itself, it could have intriguing implications for understanding Uranus.
The researchers say one possibility is that the rings of Uranus are producing X-rays themselves, which is the case for Saturn’s rings.
Scientists have detected X-rays in most of the solar system’s planets. The lesser-known Uranus and Neptune were the only ones missing from the list.
The seventh planet is surrounded by charged particles such as electrons and protons. If these energetic particles collide with the rings, they could cause the rings to glow in X-rays. But it could also be that some of the X-rays come from Uranus’ auroras, as they do on Jupiter. Scientists have previously observed auroras on the ice giant at other wavelengths.
The X-rays from Jupiter’s auroras come from two sources: electrons traveling down magnetic field lines, as on Earth, and positively charged atoms and molecules raining down at Jupiter’s polar regions. However, scientists aren’t so sure what triggers auroras on Uranus.
Scientists are confident that Chandra’s observations may help figure out this mystery. Missions yet to launch may also be able to study the planet’s X-ray emissions, particularly the European Space Agency’s Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA), due to launch in 2031, or the Lynx X-ray Observatory mission that NASA is considering for launch after its Nancy Grace Roman Telescope.
This study, however, may help scientists learn more about this enigmatic ice giant planet in our solar system.
The research was published Wednesday (March 31) in the Journal of Geophysical Research.