A major panel of scientists has recommended that the main mission to Uranus should be NASA’s top-priority interplanetary science mission for the next decade.
Uranus It is a mostly unexplored world; It was NASA’s only visit to the seventh planet Voyager 2His short flight on January 24, 1986, during which scientists discovered the planet’s rings and some additional moons.
The new recommendation comes from a process called the Decadal Survey, which is led by the National Academy of Sciences and provides NASA guidance for prioritizing science goals. that committee new report, published on Tuesday (April 19), highlighted a mission concept called the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) for a multi-year orbital tour during which the probe must be disposed of. The panel described Uranus as “one of the most interesting bodies in the solar system” and targeted launch opportunities in the early 2030s for a 12- to 13-year cruise to begin observations.
“When I first read this recommendation, I was afraid I might be dreaming!” Lee Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in the UK who took part in the decadal survey, told Space.com. “Prioritizing the decadal survey is a fantastic leap forward for the outer solar system community.”
New flagship mission
For now, Uranus Orbiter & Probe is not a specific mission, but rather a concept. The previous decadal survey, released in 2011, cited the idea as the third priority of the main mission, after ideas that matured in perseverance rover Now at work on Mars and Europa clipper The mission is scheduled to be launched in 2024.
Other reports have also stressed the need for a fully equipped Uranus orbiter, complete with an atmospheric probe to dive beneath the planet’s clouds. Report of the study of ice giants in the pre-declinic survey It included a variety of options for the spacecraft Uranus and Neptune, while the white paper called Explore giant ice systems He also presents to the Decadal Survey Committee and discusses the need for an orbiter/probe assembly on a Class I mission.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Uranus is now high on the agenda.
The lead author of the recent Ice Giants Report is Chloe Bedingfield, a planetary scientist and astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, who believes there is compelling broad science of planets and even extrasolar systems to be done at Uranus. “The main mission to the Uranian system will provide a fantastic opportunity to explore how giant ice systems, common in the galaxy, form and evolve,” she told Space.com. This intersection with exoplanet science may have helped the Uranus cause.
The Uranus Orbiter & Probe mission in the region will cost $4.2 billion, according to preliminary assessments. Some scholars think so More affordable concept Costing less than $900 million, it would be the only way to launch a Uranus mission to Earth. (NASA calls the missions for this budget “New Frontier” missions; examples include Juno mission to Jupiter and Osiris Rex mission to bring in a sample of the asteroid.)
“The new frontier level mission can only scratch the surface, unable to explore the complete giant ice system in all its rich diversity,” Fletcher said.
“To fully explore Uranus, we need to be in orbit, explore its interior, atmosphere and magnetosphere, and tour the moons and countless icy rings,” he added. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!”
Get there in time
How long it takes to reach Uranus depends on the time of launch of the spacecraft. gravity assist from Jupiter A larger spacecraft is required to avoid an unnecessary long flight. The giant planet’s location means that it’s best to launch the Uranus mission in 2031 or 2032 to reach Uranus in 2044 or 2045. Land Late 2038, but that could mean a 15-year journey.
However, there is a good scientific reason to reach Uranus by 2045. A year on Uranus lasts for 84 years on Earth, and Voyager 2 was energized during the Southern Hemisphere summer, so if scientists want the greatest contrast with the views of that mission, the new spacecraft needs to arrive before the Southern Spring begins in 2049.
This timing will also give the probe entirely new views of the southern hemisphere of Uranus’ moons, sparking curiosity in their own right.
Uranus has 27 moons, but scientists believe that the five largest moons – Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon – may be oceanic worlds that could harbor life. “Investigating these moons will enhance our knowledge of the whereabouts of habitable objects in our solar system,” Bedingfield said. These moons are not covered in craters, indicating that they may be geologically active as surfaces change, possibly due to ice volcanoes.
Richard Cartwright, planetary scientist and astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center and lead author of paper proposal for the Uranus orbiter, he told Space.com. He noted that the Voyager 2 fast flyby took snapshots of moon surfaces that show evidence of geological activity in Miranda and Ariel in particular.
“However, the northern hemisphere of Uranus’ moons was covered in winter darkness at the time of the flyby and largely not imaged, leaving many unanswered questions about the origin and evolution of these icy bodies,” he said. For now, Cartwright has arranged to use a file James Webb Space Telescope To look for chemicals that may have seeped from the inner oceans of these worlds, but that doesn’t compare to visiting up close.
Search for a name
The commission recommended that work on a real mission design should begin by 2024, budgets allow, but any Uranus mission would need an iconic name.
Bedingfield provided a possible good name for the orbital vehicle is ‘Caelus’, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Uranus. “That would be fitting because Uranus is the only planet in our solar system that is named after a character from Greek rather than Roman mythology.”
But there are likely to be two pieces of hardware: an orbiting satellite and one atmospheric probe. For comparison, NASA named it Cassini The orbiter, which studied Saturn from 1997 to 2017, after the discovery of Saturn’s moons. The mission’s European-made probe – which descended to the surface of the alien moon Titan – was named Higgins After the astronomer who confirmed Saturn has rings.
Another option could be “Shakespeare” for the Uranus orbiter and “Bob” for the atmosphere 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 play “The Tempest” while Titania and Oberon are from his film “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“I think Shakespeare is a great choice for the name of the assignment,” said Cartwright. “An inspiring and well-known name!”
But while Uranus scientists celebrate the new recommendation, the Uranus mission has yet to become a reality. “There are many obstacles ahead – political, financial, technical – so we are not under the illusion,” Fletcher said. “We have about a decade to go from a paper mission to a hardware launch show. There’s no time to waste.”
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