NASA science advisers call for exploring Uranus as top priority this decade

Uranus, seen by Voyager 2 in January 1986

Uranus, seen by Voyager 2 in January 1986
Image: NASA/JPL

A new report covering the next 10 years in planetary science and astrobiology concludes that sending an orbiter and probe to Uranus should be “the highest priority mission.” The decennial survey of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine aims to shape funding and research efforts through 2032.

The report calls for a spacecraft to orbit Uranus and map its gravitational and magnetic fields. The orbiter would circle Uranus for several years and send an atmospheric probe into its hydrogen sulfide-laden skies.

The 780-page document comes after the decadal survey of astronomical targets, published in November. The new survey outlines science priorities and funding recommendations for planetary science, astrobiology, and planetary defense, as defined by hundreds of members of those fields.

“This recommended portfolio of missions, high-priority research activities, and technological development will produce transformational advances in human knowledge and understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system, and of life and habitability on other bodies beyond Earth. Earth,” Robin Canup, associate vice president of the Planetary Science Directorate at Southwest Research Institute and co-chair of the survey steering committee, said in a statement from the National Academies.

The report is organized around 12 priority science topics, including questions about exoplanets and the structure of distant worlds, how our solar system began and evolved, and why life came to exist on Earth (and how that can help us understand its existence). potential elsewhere).

The decadal survey recommends conducting various missions within different NASA programs. It says the highest-priority flagship mission of the next decade should be a probe to Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun.

The Uranus question was presented by a team led by Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a white paper. The team concludes that the main goals should be to investigate the composition and structure of Uranus, the nature of its magnetic field, how its internal heat moves to the surface, and the details of its atmosphere, moons, and ring system. As Gizmodo previously reported, Uranus smells like fart. But certain details about the ice giant can only be discerned from 3 billion kilometers away, hence the need for further close-up observations.

The report says that a launch to Uranus between 2023 and 2032 could be made with launchers already available, and that if the mission leaves in 2031 or 2032, it could capitalize on Jupiter’s gravitational assist to speed its journey.

The second highest priority mission should be an orbilander to Enceladus, according to the report. The orbilander is a combination orbiter and lander that would study Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that has shown signs that it could harbor microbial life.

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