MRI researcher may have accidentally discovered how gas planets are magnetic

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Jupiter is the largest and one of the most mysterious planets in the solar system. It’s 1,300 times the size of Earth, and never seems to behave the way it should or the way scientists predict.

Compared to Earth, Jupiter is an extraordinary and confusing planet. According to space.com, it has a magnetic field that is 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s.

But, the question remains, how does a gas giant create such a magnetic attraction? After all, it’s made of, well, gas.

Enter Professor Eduard Chekmenev from Wayne University in Michigan. He is a leading-edge MRI researcher that conducted an experiment in a test tube far from the academics of space..and he may have come up with an answer.

His lab researches the advancement of MRI tech. They are exploring nuclear magnetic resonance. During this research, he noticed something about the dihydrogen they work with and how it releases energy. It was similar to what they were saying may be happening to some degree on Jupiter and, more importantly, on Uranus and Neptune.

But before we get too deep into that yet, let’s provide some important context that made Professor Chekmenev’s discovery so groundbreaking.

Courtesy NASA

According to the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Jupiter’s magnetic field is so strong that it begins to avert the solar wind 3 million kilometers before it hits the planet.

The field affects the solar wind as far as Saturn’s orbit, and the solar wind is where Jupiter gets many of the charged particles.

Think about it as using space dust! The charged particles can zip along the magnetic lines and release energy. The energy released can be all over the electromagnetic spectrum. The energy can be measured as radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.

The energy as radio waves is what the Juno spacecraft recently found coming from the moon Ganymede.

But the fundamental question is, how do all of the gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus –without exception, create persistent strong magnetic fields without the presence of metal like iron?

One theory says that Jupiter has created enough pressure to create metallic hydrogen. Simply put, this is when a common element acts like a metal. It takes intense pressure, and the metallic hydrogen theory works for Jupiter and Saturn to help explain their magnetic fields.

But in the case of Neptune and Uranus, they are a lot smaller and there is not enough pressure for the metallic hydrogen to exist, yet they both have magnetic fields, too.

This is where Professor Chekmenev’s discovery comes into play.

Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky (Getty Images)

What Professor Chekmenev tells ABC4 is that much of the discovery is based his work with dihydrogen, or two hydrogen atoms.

Let’s breakdown Chekmenev’s explanation into a few bullet points:

  • Dihydrogen molecules can exist in two forms: ortho and para.
    • This depends on how the proton nuclei are spinning
  • Chekmenev uses dihydrogen for his MRI research.
    • The form of dihydrogen atoms they use is para, meaning they are spinning at opposite ends.
  • When they are spinning at opposite ends, there is no net magnetism. None.

But here is where it gets amazing – parahydrogen can be used to induce large nuclear magnetization.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Nuclear magnetization sounds scary, but the professor says, “The magnetization of nuclear spins can be enhanced by many orders of magnitude and it boosts the MRI signal — as a result, an MRI scan of the highly magnetized contrast agents can be accomplished in less than a second.”

Chekemenev tells ABC4 in their earlier research, he was previously under the impression that if the parahydrogen changed states to ortho hydrogen by interacting with something else, “all of the locked magnetizations would be lost, but I was wrong.”

In an experiment back in 2013, the research team realized the parahydrogen converting to orthohydrogen retained a high degree of magnetization – in orthohydrogen, the nuclei spin in the same direction. In their experiment, they detected highly magnetized ortho hydrogen.

The professor reflects, “I thought, oh my God, it probably has more importance beyond what we do because this process must be happening somewhere else in the universe as well, beyond our test tube where we ran our experiment after all hydrogen is the most abundant element.”

He started researching the idea on a larger scale and realized there were many decades of research, all dealing with the Jovian planets’ parahydrogen-orthohydrogen equilibrium.

The “Aha” moment

It was the “aha” moment, and where the MRI research here on Earth leads to the new theory of what’s happening in the Jovian system in our solar system and beyond.

The scientists realized they were seeing it on an every day basis.

Chekmenev says, “The current understanding as to why Jovian planets have magnetic fields is because they all must have the planetary dynamo or electric currents in moving electrically conducting planetary layers. Which in Jupiter’s and Saturn’s case could be metallic hydrogen. It’s predicted to exist at high pressures. For Neptune and Uranus, the search for electrically conductive layers is still ongoing. I thought maybe we don’t need an ocean of diamonds to explain what is happening. Maybe we can explain it at the level of the dihydrogen itself.”

Professor Chemenev’s theory boils it down to the spin conversion when the non-magnetic para-state changes to the ortho-state with substantially enhanced magnetization.

A nuclear flip and the magnetics soar.

Chemkmenev explains, “In the nutshell, the hidden magnetic force of parahydrogen awakens after the conversion to orthohydrogen. The previous flyby missions discovered that Jovian planets have parahydrogen-rich layers with clouds made of solid micro-particles. These particles can facilitate the rapid para- to ortho- interconversion and constantly recharge the enhanced magnetization of orthohydrogen. This continuous exchange is crucial to produce persistent magnetism on a planetary scale. Moreover, the new theory also explains the multi-polar nature of Jovian planets’ magnetospheres.”

He says, “Based upon the things we have been able to show in my lab, when the parahydrogen converts its state under a specific set of conditions, it can become highly magnetized orthohydrogen.”

Have it happen on the scale of a planet the size of Uranus, and you will have astonishing magnetic fields and complex patterns.

Courtesy: NASA

The professor expresses that he is not saying the current theory based on metallic hydrogen is wrong, but what he is saying is that his theory will also explain why there is magnetism on other planets like Neptune and Uranus “where the pressure is insufficient for the metallic hydrogen to exist.”

“If orthohydrogen is produced from parahydrogen it can gain high levels of magnetization.” The professor says, “this creates the magnetic field itself.”

So how then does the magnetic field generate the radio waves that Juno picked up from Ganymede?

The professor smiled and said “That part, is beyond me, but we are working on it.”

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