NASA plans to send a flagship mission to Uranus by 2049

(ORDO NEWS) — The NASA Committee of Scientists has recommended that the flagship mission to Uranus be NASA’s top priority major planetary science mission for the next decade.

Uranus is a practically unexplored world; NASA’s only visit to the seventh planet was a short flyby on January 24, 1986, during which scientists discovered the planet’s rings and several additional moons.

The new recommendation comes as a result of a process called the Decennial Review, which is led by the National Academy of Sciences and provides NASA with guidance on setting priority science goals.

The committee’s new report, released Tuesday (April 19), looks at a mission concept called the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) for a multi-year orbital flight that would drop an atmospheric probe.

The committee called Uranus “one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system” and outlined launch opportunities in the early 2030s for a 12-13-year flight to start observations.

“When I first read this recommendation, I was afraid that I dreamed it!” said Lee Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in the UK. “The setting of priorities in the 10-year review is a remarkable leap forward for the outer solar system research community.”

New flagship mission

At the moment, the orbiter and probe to Uranus is not a specific mission, but a concept. The previous 10-year review, published in 2011, listed the idea as the third priority for a flagship mission, after ideas that have grown into the Perseverance rover now operating on Mars and the Europa Clipper mission, scheduled to launch in 2024.

Other reports also highlight the need for a fully equipped orbiter to Uranus, complete with an atmospheric probe to dive below the planet’s clouds.

An ice giant research report prepared before the Decade Review presented various spacecraft options for Uranus and Neptune, and a paper titled “Ice Giant Systems Research”, also before the committee, discusses the need for an orbiter/probe in a flagship-class mission. .

Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that Uranus is now at the top of the agenda.

The lead author of the latest ice giant report, Chloe Beddingfield, a planetary scientist and astronomer at NASA’s California Research Center, believes extensive planetary and even exoplanetary research can be done on Uranus.

“The flagship mission to the Uranus system will provide an incredible opportunity to study how systems of ice giants, which are common in the galaxy, formed and evolved,” she said in an interview. This intersection with exoplanet science could possibly help the cause of Uranus.

According to initial estimates, the cost of the Uranus Orbiter and Probe mission will be about $4.2 billion. Some scientists believed that a more affordable concept costing less than $900 million would be the only way to launch a mission to Uranus.

(NASA calls missions with this budget “new frontiers”; examples include the Juno mission to Jupiter and the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling mission.)

“A New-Frontiers-level mission can only scratch the surface without being able to explore the entire ice giant system in all its rich diversity,” Fletcher said.

“In order to fully explore Uranus, we need to be in orbit, exploring its interior, atmosphere and magnetosphere, and viewing the many icy moons and rings,” he added. “If it’s worth doing it, then it’s worth doing it right!”

Getting there on time

How long it takes to reach Uranus depends on when the spacecraft is launched. Large spacecraft need Jupiter’s gravitational assistance to avoid an excessively long journey.

The location of the giant planet means that the launch of the spacecraft to Uranus is preferably carried out in 2031 or 2032 in order to arrive at Uranus in 2044 or 2045. It could leave Earth as early as 2038, but that would mean a 15-year journey.

However, there is a good scientific reason to get to Uranus by 2045. A year on Uranus lasts 84 Earth years, and Voyager 2 passed by during a southern hemisphere summer, so if scientists want the most contrasting experience from that mission, the new spacecraft should arrive before the start of the southern spring in 2049.

This time will also allow the probe to obtain completely new views of the southern hemispheres of Uranus’ moons, which are intriguing worlds in their own right.

Uranus has 27 moons, but scientists believe its five largest moons – Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon – could be oceanic worlds that might harbor life. “Studying these moons will increase our knowledge of where potentially habitable bodies exist in our solar system,” Beddingfield said. for ice volcanoes.

“The large moons of Uranus are really weird,” Richard Cartwright, a planetary scientist and astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center and lead author of a paper proposing a Uranus orbiter, told Space.com. He noted that during the short flyby of Voyager 2, images of the surface of the moons were taken, which indicate geological activity, in particular, on Miranda and Ariel.

“However, the northern hemispheres of the uranium moons were shrouded in winter darkness during the flyby and virtually unimaged, leaving many questions about the origin and evolution of these icy bodies unanswered,” he said.

For now, Cartwright has arranged to use the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope to search for chemicals that may have leaked from the interior oceans of these worlds, but that still doesn’t compare to a close visit by a probe.

Searching for a name

The committee has recommended that work on a real mission design be started by 2024, budgets permitting, but any mission to Uranus needs an iconic name.

A good possible name for the orbiter is Caelus, which is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Uranus,” suggested Beddingfield. “That would be appropriate because Uranus is the only planet in our solar system named after a character from the Greek, and not Roman mythology. ”

But, most likely, there will be two devices: one orbiting satellite and one atmospheric probe. For comparison, NASA named its Cassini orbiter, which studied Saturn from 1997 to 2017, in honor of the discoverer of Saturn’s moons.

A probe of European construction, which descended to the surface of the strange moon Titan was named “Huygens” in honor of the astronomer who confirmed the presence of rings on Saturn.

Another option would be “Shakespeare” for the Uranus orbiter and “Pope” for the atmospheric probe. After all, the moons of Uranus are named after characters from the works of William Shakespeare and the British poet Alexander Pope.

For example, Ariel and Miranda appear in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I think Shakespeare is a great choice for a mission title,” Cartwright said. “Inspiring name and well known!”.

But while scientists are celebrating the new recommendation, a mission to Uranus has yet to become a reality.

“There are still many obstacles ahead – political, financial, technical – so we have no illusions,” Fletcher said. “We have about ten years to go from the paper mission to the equipment in the launch fairing. There is no time to waste.”

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