Rotten egg gas found on planet Uranus

A computer enhancement of a NASA Voyager 2 image emphasising the high-level haze in Uranus upper atmosphere

Without definitive evidence, it's remained unclear for decades whether the region is predominantly composed of hydrogen sulfide, or of ammonia. 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. At this concentration, an astronaut sniffing Uranus' air would sense a rotten-egg, fart-like smell (ignoring the fact that the cold and the rest of the atmosphere's composition would kill him).

Researchers have long wondered about the composition of the clouds high up in Uranus' sky - specifically, whether they're dominated by ammonia ice, as at Jupiter and Saturn, or by hydrogen sulfide ice. Now, new and improved measurements obtained by using the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea have detected the presence of hydrogen sulfide (an unpleasant gas that most people avoid) in Uranus's cloud tops.

Chris Davis, a leading funder of the Gemini telescope at the United State's National Science foundation staed that the work done to discover that the amount of hydrogen sulfide was the cause of the odor was an innovative use of the instrument as the telescope is created to study explosive experiments around black holes.

The discovery marks another distinction between the ice giants - Uranus and Neptune - and the gas giants - Jupiter and Saturn. As the signal from the spectral lines was faint, it is so hard to capture a snap of the ammonia and sulfide existence.

One of the reasons for these differences in atmospheric makeup, explains Dr Leigh Fletcher, from the University of Leicester, co-author of the study, is because of the way the planet formed and the conditions under which the planet was formed. "Only a tiny amount remains above the clouds as a saturated vapour. The superior capabilities of Gemini finally gave us that lucky break", concludes Fletcher.

Glenn Orton, of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, who worked on the study, said: "We've strongly suspected that hydrogen sulphide gas was influencing the millimetre spectrum of Uranus for some time, but we were unable to attribute the absorption needed to it uniquely".

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

"It adds another piece of information about the planets and how they form", study author Patrick Irwin from the University of Oxford told Gizmodo. "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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