Auroras lighting-up on Uranus photographed for the first time

For the first time, astronomers have snapped photos of auroras lighting up Uranus’s icy atmosphere.

Two fleeting, Earth-size auroral storms were imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope as they flared up on the dayside of the gas giant in November 2011.

“The last time we had any definite signals of auroral activity on Uranus was when NASA’s Voyager 2 probe swung by in 1986,” said study leader Laurent Lamy, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris in Meudon, France.

“But this is the first time we can actually see these emissions light up with an Earth-based telescope.”

Auroras are light displays often seen at the highest latitudes of Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn—all of which all have magnetospheres that act as shields against incoming solar storms…

The team timed their Hubble observations specifically to coincide with the solar storm, and about six weeks later, Hubble spotted the auroras flaring up in Uranus’s upper atmosphere…

The auroras’ unusual appearance might have something to do with the planet’s oddball orientation.

Unlike the other seven planets, Uranus’s magnetic axis is 60 degrees off from its spin axis. In addition, spin axis itself has a bizarre 98-degree tilt relative to the solar system’s orbital plane. In other words, the planet seems to roll around on its side as it orbits the sun.

Uranus’s auroras are very short-lived, and Lamy speculates that’s because of the difference between the orientation of the incoming solar particles and the planet’s unusual magnetic field.

Delightful stuff. We’re fortunate that [so far] the rising tide of anti-scientific drivel that consumes nutballs — and politicians seeking the nutball vote — hasn’t affected astronomy.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some Tea Party hack ask that the Hubble conduct a search for angels.

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