Scientists have made an intriguing discovery that could shed light on the mysterious magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune. Known as superionic ice, this rare form of water exists as both a solid and a liquid simultaneously. It is believed to be prevalent in the interiors of Uranus, Neptune, and similar exoplanets.
The structure of superionic ice is made up of oxygen atoms locked in a solid cubic lattice, with ionized hydrogen atoms flowing freely through the lattice, giving it conductive properties. Recently, scientists made a breakthrough by identifying a new phase of superionic ice, called Ice XIX. To uncover this elusive form of water, the researchers bombarded thin slices of water with intense lasers, subjecting them to temperatures of 5,000 Kelvin and pressures of 200 Gigapascals.
Through X-ray diffraction analysis, the crystal structure of Ice XIX was revealed. This new phase displayed a distinct composition from the previously identified Ice XVIII, and notably exhibited higher conductivity. Conductivity is key because it generates magnetic fields. The enhanced conductivity of Ice XIX suggests it may hold the key to understanding the peculiar, multipolar magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune.
While this finding significantly contributes to our understanding of these ice giants, it also provides valuable insight into the phase diagram of water under extreme conditions. Such conditions are highly relevant to the interiors of ice giant exoplanets. This study is particularly significant because it builds upon measurements taken by NASA’s Voyager II space probe over three decades ago. Those initial observations first brought attention to the unusual magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune.
The research, published in Scientific Reports, not only deepens our knowledge of the exotic phenomena occurring within planets under extreme conditions but also highlights the progress made in the field since the Voyager II mission. By unlocking the secrets of superionic ice, scientists are one step closer to unraveling the mysteries of our universe.
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