Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Uranus auroras glimpsed from Earth

13.04.2012
For the first time, scientists have captured images of auroras above the giant ice planet Uranus, finding further evidence of just how peculiar a world that distant planet is.

Detected by means of carefully scheduled observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the newly witnessed Uranian light show consisted of short-lived, faint, glowing dots - a world of difference from the colorful curtains of light that often ring Earth's poles.

In the new observations, which are the first to glimpse the Uranian aurora with an Earth-based telescope, the researchers detected the luminous spots twice on the dayside of Uranus - the side that's visible from Hubble. Previously, the distant aurora had only been measured using instruments on a passing spacecraft. Unlike auroras on Earth, which can turn the sky greens and purples for hours, the newly detected auroras on Uranus appeared to only last a couple minutes.

In general, auroras are a feature of the magnetosphere, the area surrounding a planet that is controlled by its magnetic field and shaped by the solar wind, a steady flow of charged particles emanating from the sun. Auroras are produced in the atmosphere as charged solar wind particles accelerate in the magnetosphere and are guided by the magnetic field close to the magnetic poles - that's why the Earthly auroras are found around high latitudes.

But contrary to the Earth - or even Jupiter and Saturn - "the magnetosphere of Uranus is very poorly known," said Laurent Lamy, with the Observatoire de Paris in Meudon, France, who led the new research.

The results from his team, which includes researchers from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, will be published Saturday in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Auroras on Uranus are fainter than they are on Earth, and the planet is more than 4 billion kilometers (2.5 billion miles) away. Previous Earth-bound attempts to detect the faint auroras were inconclusive. Astronomers got their last good look at Uranian auroras 25 years ago when the Voyager 2 spacecraft whizzed past the planet and recorded spectra from of the radiant display.

"This planet was only investigated in detail once, during the Voyager flyby, dating from 1986. Since then, we've had no opportunities to get new observations of this very unusual magnetosphere," Lamy noted.

Planetary scientists know that Uranus is an oddball among the solar system's planets when it comes to the orientation of its rotation axis. Whereas the other planets resemble spinning tops, circulating around the Sun, Uranus is like a top that was knocked on its side - but still keeps spinning.

The researchers suspect that the unfamiliar appearance of the newly observed auroras is due to Uranus' rotational weirdness and peculiar traits of its magnetic axis. The magnetic axis is both offset from the center of the planet and lists at an angle of 60 degrees from the rotational axis - an extreme tilt compared to the 11 degree difference on Earth. Scientists theorize that Uranus's magnetic field is generated by a salty ocean within the planet, resulting in the off-center magnetic axis.

The 2011 auroras differ not only from Earth's auroras but also from the Uranian ones previously detected by Voyager 2. When that spacecraft made its flyby decades ago, Uranus was near its solstice - its rotational axis was pointed toward the Sun. In that configuration, the magnetic axis stayed at a large angle from the solar wind flow, producing a magnetosphere similar to the Earth's magnetosphere, although more dynamic. Under those 1986 solstice conditions, the auroras lasted longer than the recently witnessed ones and were mainly seen on the nightside of the planet, similar to what's observed on Earth, Lamy said.

Hubble can't see the far side of the planet, however, so researchers don't know what types of auroras, if any, were generated there.

The new set of observations, however, is from when the planet was near equinox, when neither end of the Uranian rotational axis aims at the Sun, and the axis aligns almost perpendicular to the solar wind flow.

Because the planet's magnetic axis is tilted, the daily rotation of Uranus during the period around the equinox causes each of its magnetic poles to point once a day toward the Sun, likely responsible for a very different type of aurora than the one that was seen at solstice, Lamy explained.

"This configuration is unique in the solar system," added Lamy, who noted that the two transient, illuminated spots observed in 2011 were close to the latitude of Uranus's northern magnetic pole.

Capturing the images of Uranus's auroras resulted from a combination of good luck and careful planning. In 2011, Earth, Jupiter and Uranus were lined up so that the solar wind could flow from the Sun, past Earth and Jupiter, and then toward Uranus. When the Sun produced several large bursts of charged particles in mid-September 2011, the researchers used Earth-orbiting satellites to monitor the solar wind's local arrival two to three days later. Two weeks after that, the solar wind sped past Jupiter at 500 kilometers per second (310 miles per second). Calculating that the charged particles would reach Uranus in mid-November, the team scrambled to scheduled time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Ever since the Voyager 2 flyby demonstrated that Uranus was a "strange beast," said Fran Bagenal, a planetary scientist with the University of Colorado in Boulder, "we've been really keen to get a better view. This was a very clever way of looking at that."

A better understanding of Uranus' magnetosphere could help scientists test their theories of how Earth's magnetosphere functions, she added. "We have ideas of how things work on Earth and places like Jupiter and Saturn, but I don't believe you really know how things work until you test them on a very different system."

Title:
"Earth-based detection of Uranus' aurorae"
Authors:
L. Lamy and R. Prange: LESIA, Obs. de Paris, CNRS, UPMC, Univ. Paris Diderot, Meudon,

France;

K. C. Hansen: Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of

Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA;

J. T. Clarke: Center for Space Physics, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA;

P. Zarka, B. Cecconi, and J. Aboudarham: LESIA, Obs. de Paris, CNRS, UPMC, Univ. Paris

Diderot, Meudon, France;

N. Andre: Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique, Toulouse, France;

G. Branduardi-Raymont: University College London, Mullard Space Science Laboratory,

Dorking, UK;

R. Gladstone: Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, USA;

M. Barthelemy: Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble, Grenoble, France;

N. Achilleos and P. Guio: University College London, London, UK;

M. K. Dougherty: Blackett Laboratory, Imperial College London, London, UK;

H. Melin, S.W.H. Cowley, T.S. Stallard and J. D. Nichols: Department of Physics and

Astronomy, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK;

G. Ballester: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, USA.

Contact information for the authors:
Laurent Lamy, Telephone: +33 1-45-07-76-61 or Email: laurent.lamy@obspm.fr

Kate Ramsayer | American Geophysical Union
Further information:
http://www.agu.org

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht In times of climate change: What a lake’s colour can tell about its condition
21.09.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)

nachricht Did marine sponges trigger the ‘Cambrian explosion’ through ‘ecosystem engineering’?
21.09.2017 | Helmholtz-Zentrum Potsdam - Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

Im Focus: Quantum Sensors Decipher Magnetic Ordering in a New Semiconducting Material

For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.

Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Rainbow colors reveal cell history: Uncovering β-cell heterogeneity

22.09.2017 | Life Sciences

Penn first in world to treat patient with new radiation technology

22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering

Calculating quietness

22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>