Scientists have just spotted something unexpected coming out of Uranus. OK, OK class, settle down. Why are you giggling? We’re about to embark on some serious scientific research here, and if you can’t take things seriously, then we won’t go any further. Just because the name of the seventh planet in the solar system happens to coincidentally sound like a reference to the sphincter, doesn’t mean that we should resort to crude toilet humour when we’re discussing astrophysics. We can’t afford to be cheeky and make assumptions when we’re getting to the bottom of Uranus. Got it? OK.
So on Monday, NASA and the European Space Agency released a fascinating image of auroras on the most misunderstood planet of all time, Uranus. Auroras, like the Northern Lights here on planet Earth, are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the sun.
However, it turns out that auroras aren’t a uniquely terrestrial phenomenon. The auroras on Jupiter and Saturn have been well-documented, but up until now, not much was known about the auroras of Uranus.
Settlers on Uranus would get a magnificent view too. Scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope took a look at Uranus’ auroras, which are caused by streams of charged particles coming from a variety of locations, from solar winds to the planet’s upper atmosphere.
The auroras get caught in powerful magnetic fields which are then channeled into the upper atmosphere, where their interactions with gases like oxygen or nitrogen set off spectacular bursts of light.
Over several years from 2012 and 2014, a team led by an astronomer from The Paris Observatory in France took a second look at Uranus’ auroras using the ultraviolet capabilities of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) installed on Hubble.
Much like Earth’s stunning auroras, the results they achieved were simply incredible. However, it wasn’t just the sheer beauty of the auroras that made them remarkable – it was what the scientists could deduce from their existence.
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