CBS Detroit - From decades-old data from the Voyager 2 Space probe that went out and explored the outer reaches of our solar system, NASA researchers have come across a new finding from the probe's Jan 24, 1986 fly-by of Uranus.
Credit: Nasa | JPL-Caltech
As Voyager 2 flew by at 50,600 miles from the icy-blue planet, it found cloud tops, two new rings, 11 new moons and temperatures below minus 353 degrees Fahrenheit. What they didn't know, Voyager 2 flew through a plasmoid. A giant magnetic bubble that was putting Uranus' atmosphere into space.
These findings in Geophysical Research Letters, raise new questions on Uranus' odd-ball magnetic fields. This, however, is nothing new when you look at it from a cosmic perspective. Venus leaks it hydrogen into the solar wind, and Jupiter and Saturn send out massive amounts of their electrically-charged air.
While small in scale, over time the gaseous ejections can have a huge impact on planetary health. As scientists look at Mars.
"Mars used to be a wet planet with a thick atmosphere," said Gina DiBraccio, space physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and project scientist for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN mission. "It evolved over time" — 4 billion years of leakage to space — "to become the dry planet we see today."
As in the case of the earth, a plant's magnetic fields can protect it from cosmic and solar radiation. Magnetic fields can also allow giant globs of atmosphere to be let loose when the field lines become tangled. DiBraccio said, "Uranus is on its own" in how the magnetic fields move around Venus.
Credit: NASA | Scientific Visualization Studio | Tom Bridgman - Animated GIF showing Uranus' magnetic field. The yellow arrow points to the Sun, the light blue arrow marks Uranus' magnetic axis, and the dark blue arrow marks Uranus' rotation axis.
DiBraccio and fellow co-author Dan Gershman - a fellow Goddard space physicist, looked at Voyager 2's magnetometer data. As they zoomed into the data they discovered smooth lines showing a jagged spike every 1.92 seconds. The tiny planetary magnetic "heartbeat" became a huge finding.
Credit: NASA | Dan Gershman - Magnetometer data from Voyager 2's 1986 flyby of Uranus. The red line shows the data averaged over 8-minute periods, a time cadence used by several previous Voyager 2 studies. In black, the same data is plotted at a higher time resolution of 1.92 seconds, revealing the zigzag signature of a plasmoid.
This data was only just 60 seconds of Voyager 2's 45-hour fly by. A proverbial needle in a haystack. Gershman added, "But if you plotted it in 3D, it would look like a cylinder...". Comparing results to other planetary passes, this cylindrical shape is at least 127,000 miles long and 250,000 miles across. They think the plasmoid is made of ionized particles, mostly ionized hydrogen.
While some planets have twisted magnetic fields, Uranus' field were smooth-closed-magnetic loops. Such loops they say are formed when a spinning planet flings small amounts of it's atmosphere into space.
They added though, knowing what's really going on is hard to say. "Imagine if one spacecraft just flew through this room and tried to characterize the entire Earth," DiBraccio said. "Obviously it's not going to show you anything about what the Sahara or Antarctica is like."
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