Uranus smells like farts


But in all seriousness, scientists just reported in the journal Nature Astronomy that the icy planet's atmosphere contains significant amounts of hydrogen sulfide. There is likely a more-concentrated reservoir of hydrogen sulfide beneath the cloud deck, the researchers said, but this likely lies beyond Earth-bound telescopes' detection abilities.

Using an instrument called the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS) at the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, researchers determined that Uranus' cloud cover is composed of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, which is what gives rotten eggs their distinctive, noxious scent.

While it's always been speculated that Uranus is home to this noxious gas, the composition of its clouds has eluded scientists for decades.

Researchers then studied bands in resulting spectrum of IR known as absorption lines, where gases in the planet's atmosphere absorb IR light coming from the Sun. Despite Voyager 2's close flyby, the composition of the atmosphere remained a mystery until now. The conditions that existed when the planets formed may have shaped which of the two compounds became dominant in the upper clouds.

'Although we knew these lines would be at the edge of detection, I made a decision to have a crack at looking for them in the Gemini data we had acquired'. This is an observation that contrasts sharply with the inner gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, where no hydrogen sulfide is seen above the clouds - instead, ammonia is observed.

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The Gemini Observatory said the planets' differences in atmospheric composition "shed light on questions about the planets' formation and history". Apart from the poetic significance of knowing Uranus basically smells like farts, the discovery might actually help astronomers understand how our early solar system formed and evolved. "The superior capabilities of Gemini finally gave us that lucky break", concludes Fletcher.

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

"Now, thanks to improved hydrogen sulphide absorption-line data and the wonderful Gemini spectra, we have the fingerprint which caught the culprit", said co-author Patrick Irwin, from the University of Oxford.

"Suffocation and exposure in the minus-200-degrees-Celsius atmosphere - made of mostly hydrogen, helium and methane - would take its toll long before the smell", Professor Irwin said.