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Surprising discovery of Uranus in ancient data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft

Surprising discovery of Uranus in ancient data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft

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from: Tanya Banner

Illustration: NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in space. © dpa / John. Howard/NASA/JPL

In data from NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, a research team found a surprise on Uranus. Other secrets can still be hidden in the data.

Greenbelt – NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft launched in August 1977 on a grand tour of the solar system, visiting many planets on its way to the outer solar system. Eight and a half years after its launch, Voyager 2 has flown past the mysterious, frozen planet Uranus. Up to about 81,000 kilometers away, the space probe approached the planet and collected a lot of data. In this data, the researchers found, among other things, two new rings and eleven previously unknown moons of Uranus.

The data provided by Voyager 2 from Uranus are unique to this day – no space probe has ever approached this planet again. Even today, there seem to be secrets in the data waiting to be revealed. This is shown by a study in 2019 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters published had become.

Surprise in data from NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft

Originally, Gina DeBraccio and Dan Gershman of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center were looking for mysteries surrounding Uranus that a new mission to the ice giant could solve. To do this, the research team first looked at the planet’s magnetic field, which is very strange and unusual in research. So the two researchers got magnetometer data from the Voyager 2 flyby and looked at the data at great magnification.

In doing so, they discovered something that was already known from other planets but never before seen on Uranus: a plasmid. When Voyager 2 visited the planet, Uranus was losing a huge bubble of plasma, and with it parts of its atmosphere. The entire structure was about 200,000 km long and 400,000 km thick, as the research team was able to show using ancient data. For comparison: the Earth’s diameter is about 12,700 km.

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Illustration: A spaceship
Illustration: NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in space. © dpa / John. Howard/NASA/JPL

Uranus ejected a giant plasmoid while Voyager 2 flew by

Plasmodiums are thought to be an important way planets lose parts of their mass and atmosphere. These are huge bubbles of plasma pinched from the planet and separated. These processes have already been observed on Earth and on other planets – on Uranus they were still completely unknown at that time, like NASA in one communication mentioned. The research team also discovered what the plasmoid is made of: mostly ionized hydrogen.

Uranus may have lost its mass and atmosphere through the plasmoid

Plasmodiums like those observed on Uranus could be responsible for 15 to 55 percent of the mass loss of Uranus’ atmosphere, DeBraccio and Gershman estimate. How many plasmodesmaids Uranus has lost over time, researchers cannot determine with a single data set. DeBraccio has an apt analogy for this: “Imagine a spaceship flying through this space trying to characterize the entire Earth. Of course, that wouldn’t reveal anything about the Sahara or Antarctica.”

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The plasma was detected by Debracio and Gershman in a 60-second excerpt from Voyager 2’s 45-hour flight over Uranus. So there may be more mysteries waiting to be revealed in the data from the ancient spacecraft. In any case, research has long since put Uranus back on the radar: The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s “Decadal Survey,” a sort of “wish list” for astronomy, puts the Uranus mission at the top. Researchers would like NASA to launch a major mission to Uranus because it is one of the most exciting objects in the solar system and there are still many mysteries to be solved. (unpaid bill)