The icy worlds of Uranus
Named after the Greek god of the sky, Uranus could be vital to understanding the thousands of planets orbiting distant stars, many of which are roughly the same size as the aforementioned ice giant.
“Uranus may be a representative of the most common type of exoplanet, and we know very little about it, which means that any science we can glean from the Uranus system is invaluable,” planetary scientist Paul Byrne of Uranus University wrote in an email. Washington, in St. Louis. “I can’t wait to see this mission in the sky!”
We do not know how or when Uranus rotates, or how this lopsided planet would have kept pace with such an orderly system of moons. Scientists don’t know much about the internal structure of Uranus, or the reasons why the planet is so much cooler than Neptune. And Voyager’s observations of Uranus’ magnetic field make it “really weird, it’s moving and tilted,” says Heidi Hamill.
For decades, the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories have observed strange heat signals between Uranus’ rings, including bright clouds erupting on the surface, bright auroras and strong winds. In 2003, scientists continued to discover additional moons.
The mission now proposed, which could cost up to $4.2 billion, could greatly advance our understanding of the Uranus system. According to the plans, a probe will descend through the planet’s atmosphere and make detailed measurements of its composition. The larger probe, equipped with various scientific instruments, will spend years examining the planet, its rings and its moons.
“Many of these moons are amazing to observe and show signs of activity on their surfaces,” says Robin Canopus.
Among the moons of this planet, named after characters in the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, the most unusual is Miranda. This moon is by far one of the strangest moons in the solar system and appears to be custom-made, with landscapes seemingly randomly grouped together. And we don’t even know what Frankenstein’s moon looks like — grainy images from the Voyager spacecraft reveal only half of this tiny world.
Perhaps most important, however, is whether some of the icy moons that orbit Uranus, such as Titania or Oberon, have oceans hidden under their crusts, such as Europa and Enceladus. These oceans may have rocky bottoms, Jonathan Lunin says, and may have a richer supply of the organic matter needed for life as we know it from the moons close to the Sun.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if one or more of the moons of Uranus had an ocean? Jonathan Lunin says:
Waiting for Uranus
Planetary scientists will have to wait a little longer for a close-up of Uranus, because it will be years, if not decades, before the probes reach the outer solar system.
Under mission plans, the Uranus Orbiter and Probe could be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket between 2031 and 2038, or later, to take advantage of a more favorable alignment of the planets. The fastest flight currently available in space takes about 13 years, which means that the probe will not enter the orbit of Uranus until the mid-1940s.
However, Heidi Hamill and other researchers who have spent years studying ice giants through simple bits of data aren’t bothered that the mission could come at a time when these scientists have stopped studying planets professionally — or, as Heidi Hamill said, when they’re actually wandering around. In a nursing home.
“This job is not for me,” says Heidi Hamill. “Twenty years ago, I could have said that I really wanted to do it, that I wanted to get there before I retired. But this has changed. It’s become something I want to see before I retire, because then I’ll know it’s real.”
This article was originally published in English on location nationalgeographic.com