NASA ignored Uranus. That could soon change.
A big draw is that Uranus – and Neptune, the solar system’s other ice giant – could be representative of the most common type of planet in the galaxy. Scientists believe that solving the mysteries of Uranus, such as its strange magnetic field, shrouded interior structure and surprisingly freezing temperatures, could be crucial not only for understanding the ice giants across the Milky Way, but also for unlocking clues to the history of our solar. system.
The proposed mission, called Uranus Orbiter and Probe, would release a small probe to sniff out the planet’s atmosphere while an orbiter crisscrosses the Uranus system for years. It’s a similar plan to NASA’s highly successful Cassini mission, which explored the Saturn system from 2004 to 2017.
“The returns from this mission will be so rich that they will touch on almost every area of planetary science,” says the planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. A stuffed Uranus toy trails behind her during our video call, and before we hang up, the fuzzy blue planet gives me a high five. “I’m pretty happy,” says Hammel.
The interplanetary spacecraft of the future
Each decade, the planetary science community presents a set of recommendations on what to prioritize over the next 10 years of exploration and research. The resulting document, known as the Planetary Decadal Survey, is used as a guide by NASA and the National Science Foundation when deciding which projects to invest in.
The last ten-year surveyreleased in 2011, recommended that the community prioritize a multi-pronged Mars sample return mission. NASA’s Perseverance rover currently completing the first phase of this mission as it crosses the surface of the red planet, collecting and storing Martian rock and dirt for eventual return to Earth. The 2011 survey also recommended a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon EuropeWhich one is one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for life. This led to the European Clipper spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2024.
The survey for the past decade ranked a mission to Uranus as the third highest priority.
“You know, having two consecutive decadal surveys now recommends going to Uranus, that’s a good thing,” Hammel says. “It demonstrates consistency and shows the desire of the planetary scientific community to return to this system.”
The 2022 Decadal Survey highlighted the importance of searching for life beyond Earth in our solar system, especially subterranean life, i.e. organisms that may survive under the martian surface or in the lapping oceans inside alien moons. “NASA should accelerate the development and validation of mission-ready life-sensing technologies,” said the co-chair of the 10-year survey. Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute said during a briefing on the report. A visit to Enceladusan icy moon of Saturn that could harbor a thriving biosphere in its subterranean ocean, is the second-highest ranked flagship mission, though it won’t arrive until the 2050s, when conditions are more favorable for exploring the moon’s eruptive south pole.
Nevertheless, Uranus, a world highly unlikely to support life as we know it, was selected as the highest priority mission in the 2022 report.
“It was clear to us that Uranus had the sweet spot in terms of things yet to be explored and discovered,” says Lunine. “I think it sells as a mission.”