For the first time, NASA announced that astronomers had detected x-rays emanating from Uranus using the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The researchers think the finding could help scientists learn more about the icy planet on the outer edges of our solar system. Uranus is the seventh planet from the sun and has a pair of rings that surround its equator.
The icy planet is large at four times the Earth’s diameter and rotates on its side in stark contrast to all other planets in the solar system. In all of human history, only a single spacecraft has ever flown by Uranus. Voyager 2 made a flyby gathering data. All other data about the planet is captured by astronomers using telescopes like Chandra or the Hubble Space Telescope.
Uranus is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. In the new findings announced by NASA, astronomers used Chandra observations taken in 2002 and again in 2017. In the first set of observations, scientists detected x-rays using the data captured in 2002 but only now analyzed. In the data captured in 2017, researchers noted a possible flare of x-rays.
The image of Uranus above shows a Chandra x-ray image of Uranus from 2002 in pink superimposed on an optical image taken by the Keck-I Telescope from a separate study in 2004. The two images were taken at approximately the same orientation. As for what causes Uranus to emit x-rays, scientists say it’s mainly the sun. In the past, astronomers discovered that both Jupiter and Saturn scattered x-ray light given off by the sun, similar to how the Earth’s atmosphere scatters sunlight.
Interestingly, there is some indication that at least one other source of x-rays is present on Uranus. Scientists hope to conduct further observations to confirm that, and if true, it could have implications in understanding Uranus. The rings surrounding Uranus may be producing x-rays themselves, which does happen in the rings around Saturn.