A global team, led by Patrick Irwin from the University of Oxford, dissected infrared light from the ice giant and found the noxious gas (which gives Rotten Eggs their distinctive scent) swirling in its upper atmosphere.
A professor of planetary physics in the UK, Irwin and his science squad analyzed data captured by the Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Maunakea volcano.
The evidence, obtained with the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS) sampled reflected sunlight from a region above Uranus’s main visible Cloud layer.
“This work is a strikingly innovative use of an instrument originally designed to study the explosive environments around huge black holes at the centers of distant galaxies,” Chris Davis, of the U.S. National Science Foundation, said in a statement.
“And this is why it’s so challenging to capture the signatures of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide above cloud decks of Uranus,” Leigh Fletcher, a researcher at the University of Leicester, explained.
A lucky break that also sheds light on planets’ formation and history: The findings contrast sharply with what we know of inner gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, whose upper clouds are comprised of ammonia ice.
So while humans won’t be traveling to these far-flung worlds any time soon, the outermost planets do provide fertile ground for probing the early history of our Solar System.
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