Next stop, Uranus? An icy planet tops the priority list for NASA’s next big mission

The American probe Uranus (artist’s impression) is a high-priority space mission from an influential group of planetary scientists.Credit: QAI Publishing / Universal Images Group via Getty

The long-neglected planet Uranus may welcome its first visitor in decades. A new report from a panel of American planetary scientists says that NASA should send a large mission to study the giant planet. The agency always follows the advice of the commission.

The Uranus mission will be the first since the cold body captured Voyager 2 in 1986. The expedition could reveal how the planet, its rings, and its moons formed and evolved over billions of years.

Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who worked on the April 19 report, published by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, says. . capital. Uranus is full of scientific secrets, such as why it rotates nearly next to it and how it developed a complex magnetic field. On a larger scale, studying Uranus can provide information about planets orbiting other stars; Of the more than 5,000 known exoplanets, the most common is the size of Uranus.

Some planetary scientists and space agencies recently requested a large mission to Uranus or Neptune, which Voyager 2 last visited in 1989. Both planets are “ice giants” and are made up of large amounts of icy material orbiting a small rocky core. But Neptune did not make the cut in the report. “Uranus is ranked higher because it is technically feasible at the moment,” Simon says.

The Uranus mission can be launched aboard a commercial Falcon Heavy rocket, a type of launch vehicle already in operation. The launch could take place as early as 2031, the first date a spacecraft could be designed and built, if fully funded. A mission to Neptune, which is farther from Earth than Uranus, would likely require a larger rocket, such as NASA’s Space Launch System, which has yet to fly.

The report proposes a mission that would launch a probe toward Uranus to explore mysteries such as what drives the strong winds blowing through its atmosphere, which is made up of hydrogen, helium and methane. The main spacecraft will spend years flying around the planet, collecting observations of features such as the magnetic field that potentially feeds the bright auroras of Uranus. “We’re talking about a mission to study the entire Uranus system,” says Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The mission will explore some of the 27 known moons of Uranus – perhaps Titania and Oberon, which are large enough to have water under their icy surfaces, or a wormhole-filled Phoebe and a spotted shark. Together, the probe and the composite will provide “an amazing array of new science,” says Heidi Hamill, vice president of science at the Consortium of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, DC. “I can go on.”

Giant planet, high price

If NASA decides to undertake a mission to Uranus, which could cost up to $4.2 billion, it could find a partner at the European Space Agency (ESA). In 2021, the European Space Agency published a long-term prioritization study that included a proposal for the agency to partner with another space agency to study an ice giant planet.

“The key question now is whether there is room in national budgets and the ESA’s science program for an ambitious partnership,” says Lee Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester, UK. “We have to wait and see.”

The new US report covers many aspects of planetary exploration and is likely to guide decisions by NASA and the US National Science Foundation for years to come. His second priority on a pioneering planetary mission, after Uranus, is to conduct a probe of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, whose plumes of water stream from the buried ocean. This mission will send a probe to the surface of Enceladus to collect sediment from a plume, and search for evidence of life.

Space and rock observations verified

For the first time, the report analyzed NASA’s preparations to defend Earth from deadly asteroids. The agency advises launching a mission to detect near-Earth asteroids as soon as possible — a project that NASA recently announced would be delayed by two years until 2028 to save money.

The report highlights the dismal state of equality and inclusion in American planetary science. He points out that academics from racial and ethnic minorities routinely face discrimination and that leadership of planetary missions does not reflect the diversity it should do. Only 5% of scientists who proposed planetary missions to NASA between 2014 and 2020 were identified as belonging to an underrepresented community. The report notes that the past decade has seen a “shocking lack of change”.

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