This is a picture of Uranus taken by NASA’s Voyager 2 space probe in 1986. Provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
A report by planetary science experts at a leading American institution has suggested that Uranus should be prioritized as the US’s next exploration planet. As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been conducting planetary exploration according to this report, it is predicted that a new probe may be launched in the early 2030s, 45 years after Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), a leading American group of scientists, announced on the 19th (local time) that it has released a report on the ‘Planetary Science 10-Year Plan’, which recommends making Uranus exploration a top priority. In this report, NASEM publishes the criteria by which the American scientific community should prioritize planetary science every decade. As long as space missions take so long, scientists discuss and prioritize them.
According to the report, scientists have asked NASA to develop a spacecraft consisting of an orbiter orbiting Uranus and a probe descending into Uranus’ atmosphere. So far, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft is the only spacecraft to explore Uranus. Voyager 2 probed in 1986 by passing 80,000 km above Uranus’s atmosphere. Based on the results of the exploration at the time, scientists analyzed that Uranus was composed of a combination of rocks and ice, hydrogen and helium. They also discovered moons and rings around Uranus.
However, as it is still unclear what elements Uranus is made of, sending probes could increase our knowledge of planet formation. This is because the extrasolar planets are analyzed as having many icy planets such as Uranus and Neptune. “Ice planets are the most common planets,” said Bethany Elman, a professor at California Institute of Technology.
The report estimates that the Uranus mission will cost up to $4.2 billion. It was predicted that if SpaceX’s large projectile Falcon Heavy was used to launch the Uranus probe, it could be sufficiently sent to Uranus. If the funds go smoothly, it is also possible to launch the probe in 2031.
As NASA has faithfully reflected the contents of the report in its planetary exploration program so far, it is expected that Uranus exploration will be included in the next exploration plan. In a 10-year plan report released by NASEM in 2011, the top priority was a Mars rover mission to search for signs of life on Mars and a probe to study Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. NASA developed the Mars rover ‘Perseverance’ and landed it on Mars in February last year. The Europa Clipper, which explores Europa, is also scheduled to be launched in October 2024. It is designed to periodically orbit Europa to observe Jupiter’s atmosphere and pass through a column of water ejected from Europa.
The Uranus mission was ranked third at the time in 2011, but the previous two missions were carried out by NASA, making it a top priority this time. The report pointed to the development of a spacecraft to explore Saturn’s moon ‘Enceladus’ as the next mission to be performed after the exploration of Uranus. Enceladus is known to exist as an ice volcano, a volcano that ejects water, methane, and ammonia in a liquid state. The report noted the need to send a spacecraft to Enceladus to perform both orbiter and lander functions to check for the existence of life.