The last time Uranus was strictly observed was 34 years ago by Voyager 2. Since then, the data gathered by the spacecraft was regularly studied, and it continued to dazzle. The two Voyager missions are still operational, but they have revisited neither of the two ice giants since 1989.
Scientists NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are reexamining Voyager 2 data to formulate future goals for future missions on Uranus and Neptune. NASA estimates that the next mission to Uranus will become a reality in ten years from now.
“As scientists, we are really eager to study Uranus and Neptune to not only learn more about our solar system planets but also because these ice giants will teach us about exoplanets,” said Gina DiBraccio, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Together with her colleague Dan Gershman, she studies Uranus’s magnetic field and the way it interacts with the Sun.
Uranus Is Literally Leaking Gas Into The Space
During the process, researchers observed something that scientists over the last 34 years have missed. Something as small as a blip let them know that Voyager 2 flew through a plasmoid.
The planet’s magnetic field is swept off by the solar winds making the magnetic field change its shape like adding a train to a dress. It is called a magnetotail. Energized hydrogen detached from the magnetotail filled up a plasma bubble forming a cylindrical plasmoid.
The plasmoid had large dimensions: 127,000 miles long, 250,000 miles across, and between 15% to 55% of atmospheric mass. As the planet released the pieces of atmosphere, it also spun, thus causing a curled shape of the energized hydrogen inside the bubble.
This might be the way Uranus is losing its atmosphere, which consists mainly of molecular hydrogen and helium. And it might be the way other planets, such as Mars, lost theirs. Mars is currently almost atmosphere-less. But it used to have one and gradually lost it over four billion years.