Uranus is tired of being the butt of your jokes — especially that one.
You see, Uranus is so sad and so very lonely; despite being discovered in 1781, it hasn’t had a visitor since 1986, when Voyager 2 performed humanity’s one and only flyby of the planet. It’s a shame we haven’t gone back since then, because Uranus truly is fascinating. Besides being one of the coldest planets in our solar system, with temperatures sinking as low as -224C, it’s encompassed by two sets of dark rings and surrounded by 27 moons named after Shakespeare characters. For such a massive planet — spanning 25,559km at its equator — Uranus remains overlooked and under-appreciated, which is why now’s the perfect time to take a trip back.
Some are already game to go. This past week, at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, a team of researchers presented a poster detailing a concept for a Uranus Orbiter mission, "OCEANUS". The team, led by Ali M. Branson at the University of Arizona, proposes that NASA launch a spacecraft in 2030, which would reach Uranus in 2041, after two gravity assists from Venus and another from Earth. The orbiter would study Uranus' rocky core as well as its unusual, lopsided magnetosphere. Only Neptune has a similarly lopsided magnetic field.
"The need to explore the ice giants is imperative -- they are the least-explored class of planet," the team wrote on their poster. "The structure and composition of these planets differ significantly from the gas giants [like Jupiter and Saturn]. Current interior models disagree with models of solar system formation on the expected size of the core. The unique magnetic field orientations and dynamo generation have not been well characterised."
In short, we know pretty much nothing about ice giants -- planets mainly comprised of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur -- despite having two in our solar system, Uranus and Neptune. We reached out to the team for more details on their proposed mission but had not heard back at time of writing.
A mission to Uranus would not only answer many outstanding questions about ice giants, it'd help boost the long-ignored planet's public profile, according to Amara Graps, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.
"In my opinion, the simplest answer why Uranus is ignored [in the media] is because there hasn't been a space mission to Uranus since the Voyager 2 mission," she told Gizmodo. "I was at JPL for the months around that encounter: January 24, 1986. However poor Uranus' special encounter was eclipsed even then."
That's because four days later, the Challenger space shuttle disaster occurred, in which an American shuttle orbiter broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven of its crew members. The tragedy grabbed and held public attention, eclipsing some of Voyager 2's accomplishments.
"All of us scientists experienced that emotional roller-coaster too," Graps explained. "On that day, we were high on the latest results from Voyager, and then upon watching the Challenger lift-off and subsequent explosion on NASA TV, numb with grief. The press went on with double duty reporting both, but Uranus never really got its full day in the public's eye."
Right now, Mars is en vogue: Everyone from Buzz Aldrin to Elon Musk is looking to send a crewed missions there over the next few decades. Hell, Musk is hoping to build a colony on the Red Planet. But just because we can't live on worlds like Uranus doesn't mean we shouldn't be be trying to better understand this big, goofy, lopsided ice giant.
As John Mayer almost said, Uranus is a wonderland -- it deserves to be loved.