For the first time, NASA announced that astronomers have detected X-rays from Uranus using the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The researchers believe the discovery 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, four times the diameter of the Earth and rotates sideways in complete contrast to all the other planets in the solar system. In the entire history of mankind, only a single spacecraft has flown across Uranus. Voyager 2 flew over collecting data. All other data on the planet is captured by astronomers using telescopes like the Chandra or the Hubble Space Telescope.
Uranus is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium. In the new discoveries announced by NASA, astronomers used Chandra observations made in 2002 and again in 2017. In the first set of observations, scientists detected x-rays using data captured in 2002, but only now analyzed. In the data captured in 2017, the researchers noted a possible x-ray explosion.
The Uranus image above shows a 2002 Chandra Uranus x-ray image in pink overlaid an optical image obtained by the Keck-I Telescope from a separate study in 2004. The two images were taken in approximately the same orientation. As for what makes Uranus emit x-rays, scientists say it’s mostly the sun. In the past, astronomers have discovered that Jupiter and Saturn scattered X-ray light emitted by the sun, similar to the way the Earth’s atmosphere scatters sunlight.
Interestingly, there is some indication that at least one other X-ray source is present in Uranus. Scientists hope to make further observations to confirm that, if true, it could have implications for Uranus’ understanding. The rings around Uranus may be producing X-rays, which is what happens in the rings around Saturn.