For the first time, astronomers identify X-ray emissions from Uranus

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With NASA’s Chandra observatory, a team of astronomers from different institutions identified, for the first time, X-rays coming from Uranus, which can be caused by different processes than other planets. These mysterious emissions can help scientists both to know more about this icy planet in the Solar System and about other objects that exist in the universe, such as black holes.

Uranus is the seventh planet in relation to the Sun and is surrounded by two rings at its equator. Thus, in the new study, the researchers used observations of Uranus made by Chandra in 2002, and others made in 2017. The first observation, older, had clear signs of X-ray detection, and it is possible that new emissions have also been collected in 2017. It is not yet clear what is causing these emissions, but it is possible that they are caused by sunlight.

Image formed by the optical light obtained by the Keck telescope, in white and blue, and by the X-rays obtained by the Chandra observatory, in pink (Image: Reproduction / NASA / CXO / University College London / W. Dunn et al)

According to the authors, it has already been possible to observe X-ray emissions on all planets in the Solar System, except for Uranus and Neptune. In addition, astronomers have previously observed that Jupiter and Saturn can disperse these rays emitted by the Sun in much the same way as the Earth’s atmosphere disperses sunlight. In the case of this new study, the authors expected that most of the detected X-rays would come from the dispersion, but there is evidence of the presence of some other source.

It is possible that Uranus’ rings are producing X-rays, just as Saturn’s rings do – Uranus is surrounded by charged particles, so if these particles reach the rings, they can cause bright X-ray emissions. The scenario proposes that, in fact, the rays come from auroras occurring in Uranus, and the phenomenon has already been observed at other wavelengths. If these explanations are confirmed with new observations, scientists will have some important implications for the understanding of this planet. On Earth, we can observe the colored lights of the auroras in the sky when charged particles from the sky interact with the magnetic field of our planet.

Auroras also occur on Jupiter, but there, the emission of X-rays from auroras has two origins: one is the electrons traveling through the gas giant’s magnetic field, and the other is atoms and molecules with positive charges moving through the polar regions. Anyway, Uranus is a very interesting target for observations because it has a rotation axis and magnetic field with a different orientation from the other planets. Thus, determining the origin of these emissions can help astronomers better understand some mysterious objects in the universe, such as black holes and neutron stars.

The article with the results of the study was published in the journal JGR Space Physics.

Source: NASA

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