NASA Data Confirms Something Is Leaking Out Of Uranus

NASA Data Confirms Something Is Leaking Out Of Uranus

The new findings "raise new questions about the planet's one-of-a-kind magnetic environment," NASA said in a statement.

NASA researchers have reportedly come across a new finding from decades-old data gathered by the Voyager 2 Space probe. Revisiting the three-decades-old data revealed that something appeared to have been sucking Uranus' atmosphere out into space when the Voyager 2 flew within 50,600 miles (81,433 kilometers) of the mysterious seventh planet's cloud tops. This finding, which was reported in Geophysical Research Letters, "raises new questions about the planet's one-of-a-kind magnetic environment," NASA said in a statement released earlier this year. According to the agency, "unbeknownst to the entire space physics community, 34 years ago, Voyager 2 flew through a plasmoid, a giant magnetic bubble that may have been whisking Uranus’s atmosphere out to space."

Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech


In a post published in March this year, NASA explained that "planetary atmospheres all over the solar system are leaking into space." For example, hydrogen escapes from Venus to join the solar wind — the continuous stream of particles escaping the Sun — while Jupiter and Saturn eject globs of their electrically-charged air. In fact, even our home planet Earth experiences atmospheric leaking although the agency assures that "it will stick around for another billion years or so." While the effects of atmospheric escape are tiny on human timescales, this phenomenon can fundamentally alter a planet's fate given enough time.



The agency presented Mars as an example of the long-term effects of atmospheric escape. "Mars used to be a wet planet with a thick atmosphere," explained Gina DiBraccio, space physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and project scientist for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. "It evolved over time to become the dry planet we see today." This drastic change is said to have occurred due to 4 billion years of leakage to space. "Atmospheric escape is driven by a planet's magnetic field, which can both help and hinder the process. Scientists believe magnetic fields can protect a planet, fending off the atmosphere-stripping blasts of the solar wind," the agency stated.



On the other hand, magnetic fields can also create opportunities to escape and hence plays a vital role in our understanding of how atmospheres change. And this is exactly what makes Uranus more of a mystery than it already is as the Voyager 2's 1986 flyby revealed just how magnetically weird the planet is. "The structure, the way that it moves... Uranus is really on its own," said DiBraccio.

Image Source: NASA/Scientific Visualization Studio/Tom Bridgman


"Unlike any other planet in our solar system, Uranus spins almost perfectly on its side — like a pig on a spit roast — completing a barrel roll once every 17 hours. Its magnetic field axis points 60 degrees away from that spin axis, so as the planet spins, its magnetosphere — the space carved out by its magnetic field — wobbles like a poorly thrown football. Scientists still don’t know how to model it," NASA explained. DiBraccio and her coauthor Dan Gershman — a fellow Goddard space physicist — reportedly discovered the plasmoid while working out plans for a new mission to the "ice giants" Uranus and Neptune.




The plasmoid occupied a mere 60 seconds of Voyager 2's 45-hour-long flight by Uranus and appeared as a quick up-down blip in the magnetometer data. "But if you plotted it in 3D, it would look like a cylinder," said Gershman. The scientists estimated a cylindrical shape at least 127,000 miles long and up to roughly 250,000 miles across and believe that like all planetary plasmoids, it was full of charged particles. "Whereas some plasmoids have a twisted internal magnetic field, DiBraccio and Gershman observed smooth, closed magnetic loops. Such loop-like plasmoids are typically formed as a spinning planet flings bits of its atmosphere to space," the agency revealed.

Recommended for you