Uranus smells like rotten eggs, scientists find

It would be very difficult to actually smell it, however, since the suffocating, cold atmosphere would take you first

A false colour view of Uranus made from images taken by Voyager II in 1986 from a distance of 4.17 million kilometers
A false colour view of Uranus made from images taken by Voyager II in 1986 from a distance of 4.17 million kilometers

Uranus smells like rotten eggs, scientists have found. And that’s not even the worst of it.

The planet’s cloud tops are partly made up of hydrogen sulphide, the same chemical that gives rotten eggs on Earth their disgusting odour. As such, anyone who actually managed to arrive there would smell the pungent aroma.

“If an unfortunate human were ever to descend through Uranus’s clouds, they would be met with very unpleasant and odiferous conditions,” said Patrick Irwin from the University of Oxford, one of the team of scientists who explored the planet’s chemical makeup.

But anyone doing so would have much bigger problems than the stench.

“Suffocation and exposure in the negative 200 degrees Celsius atmosphere made of mostly hydrogen, helium, and methane would take its toll long before the smell,” said Irwin.

The composition of Uranus’s clouds has been a long and difficult mystery for scientists, despite the fact that we have learnt great detail about the other parts of our neighbour. Now the new research unlocks that stubborn mystery, revealing some of the makeup of the clouds that float over the planet’s surface.

They did so using sensitive spectroscopic observations taken from the Gemini North telescope. By dissecting the infrared light coming back from Uranus, scientists were able to understand how its clouds were formed.

Scientists have long argued over whether the planet’s clouds were made up of hydrogen sulphide or ammonia. But there has been no clear evidence or proof either way.

“Now, thanks to improved hydrogen sulphide absorption-line data and the wonderful Gemini spectra, we have the fingerprint which caught the culprit,” said Irwin.

The discovery means that Uranus is distinct from Neptune and Jupiter. Those other planets in our solar system show no hydrogen sulphide on their surface, instead showing ammonia floating above the clouds.

That difference was probably determined at the very beginning of our solar system and was determined by the way they formed.

“During our solar system’s formation the balance between nitrogen and sulphur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation,” explained Leigh Fletcher, a member of the research team from the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in