Uranus Stinks


Way back in Issue 25 we discovered Uranus is tilted and you probably should have seen a doctor.

Nearly a year later, it seems you let the problem fester and things are even worse. Now, you notice something foul coming from Uranus. A rank odor seems to emanate from Uranus. Uranus smells like rotten eggs! Grody!

Hydrogen sulfide is the culprit behind the putrescence of rotten eggs and human flatulence. It is produced by the microbial breakdown of organic material in the absence of gaseous oxygen. You might encounter it in swamps or sewers or, yes, Uranus. More than just a nose-ruiner, hydrogen sulfide is actually poisonous; it was used sparingly in World War I as a chemical weapon when other toxic gases were not available.

Scientists believed for many years that Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but in 2018 a study proved Uranus is full of stinky gas.

Patrick Irwin, a physicist at the University of Oxford’s probing of Uranus, put it thusly: “If an unfortunate human were ever to descend through Uranus’s clouds, they would be met with very unpleasant and odoriferous conditions.” In addition to imminent death and terrible odors, Uranus also has clouds!

Uranus is bigger than Earth. Yikes!

The Gemini North telescope, housed in Hawaii at Mauna Kea, stereoscopically examined Uranus. The results displayed no ammonia in the upper layers of the atmosphere like there is on Jupiter and Saturn, but hydrogen sulfide. Researchers had long wondered if Uranus would mirror the two largest planets in the solar system. Until the recent study, it was all speculation. Jupiter and Saturn are much closer to us than Uranus, which makes them easier to monitor; further, they both had dedicated orbiting missions that revealed a lot of info.

So what good does it do to prove Uranus smells like rotten eggs?

Leigh Fletcher, another physicist involved in the project, noted the difference between the gas giants – Jupiter and Saturn – and the ice giants – Uranus and Neptune – gives a clue about the formation of the solar system (though we do not yet know for sure, scientists believe Neptune will smell just like Uranus). Fletcher expanded, “During our solar system’s formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur — and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide — was determined by the temperature and location of [a] planet’s formation.” In other words, they believe the ice giants coalesced into proper planets farther from the sun than the gas giants. One might expect that to be the case, based on the present orbits of planets, but you know what happens when you assume. You make Uranus out of you and me!

One thing I am sure I have gleaned from working on this newsletter is Uranus is shaping up to be the strangest body in the solar system. Uranus is tilted and it smells like garbage.

What revelation could possibly come next? Send me your best predictions about Uranus! (Really, send them.)

Further Reading and Exploration

What Do Uranus’s Cloud Tops Have in Common With Rotten Eggs? – Gemini Observatory

Uranus Smells Like Rotten Eggs – Space.com

Uranus – NASA overview on the planet

Uranus 101 – National Geographic video

The Secrets of Uranus – by Thomas K. Adamson (e-book version)

Keep Earth Clean – It’s Not Uranus – T-Shirt!

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2 thoughts on “Uranus Stinks”

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