MRI researcher may have accidentally discovered how gas planets are magnetic

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SALT LAKE CITY (KTVX) – 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 scientists predict.

According to space.com, Jupiter has a magnetic field that is 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s.

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

Professor Eduard Chekmenev, an MRI researcher from Wayne University in Michigan, may have come up with an answer.

His lab researches the advancement of MRI technology and is exploring nuclear magnetic resonance. During the research, Chekmenev noticed how the dihydrogen that they work with releases energy. It was similar to what they said may be happening to some degree on Jupiter and, more importantly, on Uranus and Neptune.

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, which 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, collectively called the jovian planets – create persistent strong magnetic fields without the presence of metal such as iron.

One theory is that Jupiter has created enough pressure to create metallic hydrogen. 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 Neptune and Uranus are a lot smaller, and there’s not enough pressure for the metallic hydrogen to exist, yet they both have magnetic fields, too.

Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky (Getty Images)

Chekmenev said that much of the discovery is based on his work with dihydrogen, or two hydrogen atoms.

Dihydrogen molecules can exist in two forms — ortho and para — and it depends on how the proton nuclei are spinning.

For his MRI research, Chekmenev uses dihydrogen, and the form of dihydrogen atoms used is para, meaning they are spinning at opposite ends.

When they are spinning at opposite ends, there is no net magnetism, but parahydrogen can be used to induce large nuclear magnetization.

Courtesy Wikipedia

“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 said.

He said that in their earlier research, he had been 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.” He said, “But I was wrong.”

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

“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,” Chekemenev said.

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

The “Aha” moment

It was the “aha” moment. The MRI research here on Earth has led to a new theory of what’s happening in the Jovian system — which encompasses Jupiter, its rings and moons — and beyond.

The scientists realized they were seeing it on an everyday basis.

“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,” Chekmenev said. “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.”

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.

“In the nutshell, the hidden magnetic force of parahydrogen awakens after the conversion to orthohydrogen,” Chemkmenev explained. “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 added, “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.”

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

Courtesy: NASA

The professor explained that he is not saying the current theory based on metallic hydrogen is wrong, but 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,” Chemkmenev said. “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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