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Why do Uranus and Neptune Have Magnetic Fields?


Neptune and Uranus, the outer "ice giant" planets, are teeming with mysteries, as is the rest of the solar system. The method by which they obtained their magnetic fields is one of the most significant. Neptune's gravitational pull is twenty-seven times stronger than Earth's, and Uranus' can be up to four times stronger than Earth's.


Chaos reigns in these electromagnetic environments, making it extremely difficult to comprehend and model their behavior and dynamics. Dr. Vitali Prakpenka of the University of Chicago and his team believe they have discovered the underlying cause of the field's strength and randomness: "hot ice." Dr. Prakpenka is the team leader.


Ice can take on a variety of different shapes and forms in chemistry. Rather than changing its shape, such as becoming a cube or a ball, it changes its crystalline lattice structure, which has the effect of altering some of its chemical properties. In water, the hydrogen bond that holds regular ice together is formed by the interaction of the oxygen and hydrogen molecules.


These crystal lattices may form at extremely high temperatures and pressures, however, and may be able to move freely within them due to the presence of hydrogen atoms in water. Because of the charge on hydrogen atoms, this is analogous to the transfer of an electrical charge throughout the lattice structure of the crystal. To put it another way, ice can be electrically conductive if it is formed under the proper environmental conditions.


For decades, scientists have been studying this extremely rare form of ice, which they have labeled "superionic ice." However, they have come up with contradictory conclusions about how to obtain it. Dr. Prakpenka and his team chose to attack the problem with high-powered instruments, as many other scientists have done in the past. To investigate the details of the formation process, they used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory's Advanced Photon Source to generate a high-energy synchrotron x-ray beam.


After thousands of runs on the system over a ten-year period, they came up with the solution they came up with. Finally, the data indicated that there were two distinct conditions that could result in two distinct types of superionic ice being formed. It so happens that one of those sets of conditions is very similar to the conditions found within the internal atmospheres of the ice giants.


Scientists have long assumed that the unique magnetic fields of the ice giants are caused by fluid layers at relatively shallow depths in their atmospheres, which they believe is correct. Despite the fact that simulations have confirmed this theory, the concept of superionic ice has the potential to completely disprove it. This theory will require further investigation in order to be proven. The formation of superionic ice on the ice giants appears to be possible under favorable conditions, and it appears to be capable of generating the magnetic fields observed around the planets. However, much more research is needed to confirm that superionic ice is the source of these magnetic fields. Sending a mission out into space almost seems like an excellent idea at this point.

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