NASA will start studying Uranus within the next 10 years

(ORDO NEWS) — The new report uses input from more than 100 space scientists and industry professionals to plan the next decade of space exploration — and they’ve set their sights on the planet Uranus and Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

The report was published last week by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which is an independent organization dedicated to helping NASA and the National Science Foundation assess the state of planetary science research and select targets. The previous report resulted in two of NASA’s biggest missions this decade.

Scientists would like to “visit every body in the solar system,” but resources are limited, so the report helps direct money to projects that will bring the greatest benefit, says Amy Simon, vice chair of the report’s Giant Planetary Systems Panel and NASA planetary scientist.

The last decade-long review, published in 2011, recommended three “flagship” priorities: a campaign to return Martian rock samples to Earth, which is the main goal of the current Perseverance rover project; a mission to the Juvian moon Europa, which became Europa Clipper; and a mission to Uranus that has yet to take place. While the recommendations are not binding, NASA takes these reports seriously. Simon is “pretty optimistic” that the flight to Uranus is at least

According to Simon, this time around, the 10-year report “re-emphasizes astrobiology – the search for habitability and or existing life in the solar system” – as well as exoplanets – worlds that exist outside our solar system.

The new exploration has two main priorities: the Uranus flagship mission and the mission to visit Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Both missions have been a priority since the last survey, Simon said.

“Sending a flagship to Uranus makes a lot of sense” because Uranus and Neptune are “pretty unexplored worlds,” says Mark Marley, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, who reviewed part of the early report and called it “a clear view.” “.

Studying these worlds will help scientists understand both the formation of our solar system and a whole class of ordinary exoplanets.” Although some people are upset that, in addition to the sample return mission, not much attention is paid to future missions to Mars, he says.

Congress, which decides NASA funding issues put a lot of emphasis on this decade of research, Marley says.Mission ideas may already be on the table, but reports indicate to NASA in what order they should be implemented.

Uranus and Neptune, the “ice giants” of the solar system, are among the least explored planets in our solar system. However, studying them in more detail could help astronomers understand more about exoplanets – ice giants have a combined mass of 10 to 15 times that of Earth, with the most common type of recently discovered exoplanets.

Uranus and Neptune are similar in size, although Uranus has cooler interiors than the other three gas giants, spins sideways, and has a system of moons that formed with it. According to Simon, Neptune’s gravity captured his moon Triton after the formation of the planet.

Although researchers are interested in Triton because it “may be an ocean world,” she says, choosing which ice giant should be a higher priority for science depends on who you ask. What is not in dispute is that Neptune is about 50 percent farther from Earth, which makes it more difficult for the craft to reach and orbit around it.

Meanwhile, astrobiologists are particularly interested in Enceladus, as it could potentially be habitable.

Enceladus is an icy moon with a diameter of about 450 km, orbiting Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft first explored Enceladus in 2005 and found evidence that it regularly erupts plumes of water into space, suggesting a liquid ocean of water beneath the moon’s icy surface.

Cassini flew through these plumes to measure their content and found salty water with organic molecules, although the orbiter was not specifically designed for this task. Jupiter’s moon Europa likely also has a subsurface ocean, but Jupiter is highly radioactive, making Saturn’s moon a potentially better option for detecting life, Simon says.

The fact that Enceladus’ plumes are “spewing material all over the Saturnian system” means that it’s relatively easy for scientists to study the planet’s interior, Simon says. An orbiter could zip through plumes in space rather than send a robot to the moon to smash through miles of ice.

The scale of new missions will depend on how much NASA’s budget grows in the coming years and how costly a mission to collect samples from Mars for the Perseverance lander becomes, Marley says. But with decent funding, there is every chance that one or both missions will be realized.

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