by Felix Zhou
Old Data, New Knowledge
In January 1986, the Voyager 2 space probe arrived at Uranus and took the only close up measurements of the planet. Ever. It gave scientists a lot of very important data about the planet, such as its rotation rate, its rings (yes, Uranus has rings), its atmosphere, and magnetic environment. The mission also discovered 11 new moons. But some data takes longer to analyze than others. As it turns out, even today, we are still drawing new conclusions from this 34 year old data.
Wait a Minute…
NASA physicist Gina DiBraccio was looking through this data when she found something quite interesting. Namely, there are weird zigzags in Uranus’ magnetic field. DeBraccio and fellow physicist Daniel Gershman found that this was probably something called a “plasmoid”. This means that solar wind shoved gas from Uranus into its magnetic field. The solar wind, which is itself charged, can blow the magnetic field back and break it on the night side of the planet (sort of like this but on Uranus instead). The sudden blip in magnetic field hurtles a lot of that gas into space, gone forever.
DiBraccio and Gershman put this new finding in a study. This is the first proof that something like this happens on Uranus. Don’t get me wrong, scientists have seen these before on other planets like Jupiter and Saturn. It’s just that now we know it exists on Uranus too. Basically, the study showed that Uranus is literally leaking huge amounts of atmosphere into space.
Why, Of Course It’s Relevant!
So what? Planets leak atmosphere all the time, including Earth (fortunately, very slowly, so there’s nothing to worry about). The thing is, until they found that blip in the Voyager data, scientists didn’t actually know for sure that Uranus has these plasmoids. Even though the thing itself isn’t new, it still gave us a lot of new information. For example, it could tell us more about what is inside Uranus, and how it changes over time. And a better understanding of other planets is always a good thing. If nothing else, it would take us another step towards getting to know our own planet and place in the universe.
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