Sending a probe to Uranus labeled as top priority by space science community - Beyond The World

Sending a probe to Uranus labeled as top priority by space science community

The space science community believes the moment has come to conduct in-depth research on Uranus – and they’re being serious. According to a recent report developed by planetary scientists from around the United States, sending an interplanetary mission to explore the ice giant planet should be the top priority for planetary research over the next decade.

Scientists are specifically urging NASA to build the Uranus Orbiter and Probe, or UOP. The mission idea calls for launching a spacecraft into orbit around Uranus, as well as a probe into the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists anticipate that such a mission will launch in the early 2030s if engineers begin work on it as soon as next year.

If it succeeds, the UOP mission could deliver the most detailed information yet on this largely uncharted world. NASA’s Voyager 2 mission, which sailed by Uranus in 1986, came within 50,700 miles of the planet’s cloud tops. Voyager 2 discovered new moons and rings around Uranus, revealing some surprising insights about the planet. But Voyager 2 didn’t remain long; it zoomed by during its survey of the outer Solar System and continued on its way, eventually disappearing into interstellar space.

An orbiter and a probe could deliver a wealth of new information. Most importantly, they could tell us what Uranus is made of. Scientists assume the planet is mostly made up of rock, ice, and hydrogen and helium, although this has yet to be proved. “Our understanding of the interior structure of the planet is so poor that we really have very little idea what the ratio of those three things are to each other,” Jonathan Fortney, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who authored a report about possible missions to Uranus and Neptune, tells The Verge. “And so there’s been a long assumption that it’s mostly these ices but that’s that’s literally an assumption. We don’t really know that.”

Furthermore, when astronomers examine planets outside our Solar System, ice giants such as Uranus and Neptune appear to dominate the Universe. Despite this, they are the only two major planets in our Solar System that we have never orbited.  “Ice giant-like planets are some of the most common ones out there,” says Bethany Ehlmann, a Caltech scientist and member of the Decadal steering committee. “We have two in our cosmic neighborhood in our Solar System, and it’s high time we check them out.”

The Uranus mission is near the top of a long wishlist published today in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey. It’s a big document created every 10 years or so by groups of planetary scientists explaining the space missions they’d most like to see happen a decade in the future. It’s published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Decadal Survey is conducted seldom because to the large length of time required to plan and build a flagship interplanetary spacecraft, which can take up to a decade to complete.

Because space missions take so long to complete, scientists must be smart in their requests, ranking the missions they wish to see happen in order of highest to lowest priority. The Uranus mission was first proposed in 2011 during the previous Decadal Survey, but it was ranked third in priority behind a Mars rover designed to look for signs of life on the Red Planet and a spacecraft to study Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which is thought to have a liquid water ocean beneath its surface.

Both of these priorities have become genuine missions. The Mars rover evolved into NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021 and is still drilling for Martian soil samples. The Europa mission evolved into NASA’s Europa Clipper, a spacecraft meant to fly by Jupiter’s moon on a regular basis in order to sample its atmosphere and possibly pass through plumes of water erupting from its surface. The Europa Clipper is currently scheduled to launch in October 2024, with its arrival in Europa expected for 2030.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as seen from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Since those initiatives have been funded and planned, lower priority missions from a decade ago have risen to the top of the priority list. A spacecraft to visit Saturn’s tempting moon Enceladus, which is likewise expected to have a liquid water ocean beneath its crust, is now the second-highest priority on the list, behind the Uranus mission. The Decadal specifically calls for the development of an Enceladus Orbilander – a spacecraft that can act as both an orbiter and a lander. The spacecraft would first enter orbit around Enceladus, possibly passing through plumes predicted to erupt from the moon’s surface. It would eventually look for a landing location on Enceladus, where it would stay for a two-year mission. Its main objective would be to search for signs of life.

However, it will be some time before the Enceladus mission sets off. The Decadal Plan calls for the mission to begin planning in fiscal year 2029, with an arrival at Enceladus in the 2050s. And that’s assuming NASA’s funding for both the Uranus and Enceladus missions, which are expected to cost billions of dollars. Recognizing that funding is always a risk, the authors of the Decadal prepared a second set of proposals in case the funding does not materialize; they indicated that the Uranus mission may begin development in 2028. However, this would imply that the Enceladus expedition would not begin until the 2030s at the earliest.

While the Uranus and Enceladus projects are the writers’ top new missions, they’ve also included a list of recommendations for existing space missions that they wish to see continue. For example, they strongly advise NASA to continue its efforts to return samples from Mars. The Perseverance rover was just one key step in a long-term strategy to collect materials and eventually take them to Earth to be analyzed in a lab.

NASA is cautiously pushing forward with the next phase of that plan, which requires developing a suite of vehicles that would land on Mars, gather the samples stashed by Perseverance, launch them off Mars, and then return to Earth. It will be a very complicated procedure, and, once again, the Decadal recognizes budget concerns. While the report advocates completing this sample return as soon as possible, it also warns against allowing the budget to balloon so much that it interferes with all of NASA’s other planetary missions.

There are also other minor planetary missions that are advocated that would not cost nearly as much as the flagship Uranus and Enceladus expeditions. These would include probes to Saturn and its moon Titan, a new Venus mission, another Enceladus trip, Moon missions, and more. The Decadal isn’t done with Mars though; it wants to launch a new mission called the Mars Life Explorer to seek for signs of life on the Red Planet while also analyzing the planet’s habitability. Furthermore, the authors ask NASA to continue the search for dangerous asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth by completing the NEO Surveyor, a planned mission set to launch in 2026.

It’s an almost 800-page study that’s highly detailed. While the Decadal may be focused on researching the worlds and rocks in our Solar System, the authors wish to underline a critical message in this report: we must also protect and support the people who labor on these missions. The research suggests encouraging students from underrepresented communities to pursue planetary science in order to develop a more diverse community of scientists and engineers working on these programs. The authors also advise NASA’s planetary science division to work on eliminating bias and developing codes of conduct for its missions and conferences.

“While scientific understanding is the primary motivation for what our community does, we must also work to boldly address issues concerning our community’s most important resource — the people who propel its planetary science and exploration missions,” said Philip Christensen, an Arizona State University professor and co-chair of the Decadal’s steering committee.

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