NASA has long ignored Uranus, but that is about to change

One of the main attractions of this mission is that planets like Uranus (or Neptune, the other icy giant in the Solar System) could be the most common in our galaxy. Some researchers believe that by lifting the veil over the mysteries of Uranus — its strange magnetic field, its hidden internal structure, its surprisingly icy temperatures — we can not only understand the icy giants of the entire Milky Way, but we can also pick up clues about the history of our solar system.

The proposed mission (“Uranus Orbiter and Probe”) would send a small probe to smell the planet’s atmosphere while an orbiter orbits Uranus for years. It is a plan similar to the Cassini mission, which explored Saturn and its surroundings from 2004 to 2017.

“The benefits of this mission will be so great that it will affect almost every area of ​​planetology,” says Heidi Hammel, a planetary scientist with the Association of Astronomical Research Universities. During our video call, I see a stuffed Uranus hanging behind her. Before I hang up, the fluffy blue planet gives me one it hits these five. “I’m very happy,” said Heidi Hammel.

AN INTERPLANETARY PROBE OF THE FUTURE

Every decade, planetary scientists compile a list of recommendations on what should be prioritized for exploration and research over the next ten years. The resulting document, called the Decadal Planetary Survey, serves as a guide for NASA and the National Science Foundation to decide which projects to invest in.

The previous 10-year survey, published in 2011, recommended that the community prioritize a multi-front Martian sample return (MRS) mission. NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently conducting the first phase of this mission. He travels the Martian soil in search of samples of rocks and earth that he will store in anticipation of his possible repatriation to Earth. In 2011, the survey also recommended a mission to Europe, Jupiter’s icy moon, which is one of the places most likely to host life in the Solar System. Thanks to this recommendation, the Europa Clipper mission was born and should be launched in October 2024.

Ten years ago, the exploration of Uranus was already third on the list of priorities published by the report.

“You know, having two consecutive ten-year polls recommending going to Uranus is a good thing,” says Heidi Hammel. This shows coherence and shows the desire of the planetary community to return to this system. »

The 2022-year survey conducted in 2022 underscores the importance of looking for life in our Solar System elsewhere than on Earth, and in particular for underwater life: organisms capable of surviving below the Martian surface or to the oceans that call within distant moons. “NASA should accelerate the development and validation of available life detection technologies,” Robin Canup, co-chair of the 10-year-old Planetary Science Report and researcher at the Southwest Research Institute, told a conference. Visiting Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon whose underground ocean could harbor a thriving biosphere, is the second priority on the list. But we will certainly have to wait until the 2050s to get there. Then the conditions will be more favorable for the exploration of its south pole prone to eruptions.

However, it was Uranus, a planet that will almost certainly not host life as we know it, was voted the most important mission in the 2022 report.

“It seemed clear to us that Uranus was the ideal candidate in terms of exploration and discoveries to be made,” says Jonathan Lunine. I think it’s an obvious mission. »

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