Probing Uranus Is Top Priority This Decade, U.S. Science Advisors Say

Probing Uranus Is Top Priority This Decade, U.S. Science Advisors Say

A new report covering the next 10 years of American planetary science and astrobiology concludes that a Uranus Orbiter and Probe should be “the highest priority large mission.” This decadal survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is intended to shape funding and research efforts through 2032.

It calls for a spacecraft that will orbit Uranus and map its gravitational and magnetic fields. The orbiter would circle Uranus for several years and deliver an atmospheric probe into the planet’s hydrogen sulfide-rich skies.

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

“This recommended portfolio of missions, high-priority research activities, and technology development will produce transformative advances in human knowledge and understanding about the origin and evolution of the solar system, and of life and the habitability of other bodies beyond Earth,” said Robin Canup, an assistant vice president of the Planetary Sciences Directorate at the Southwest Research Institute and a co-chair of the survey’s steering committee, in a National Academies release.

The report is organised 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 manages to exist on Earth (and how that may help us understand its potential existence elsewhere).

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

The case for Uranus was made by a team led by Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a white paper. That 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 specifics of its atmosphere, moons, and ring system. As previously reported by Gizmodo, Uranus smells like farts. But only so much detail about the ice giant can be discerned from 1.92 billion miles away, hence the need for new up-close observations.

The report says that a launch to Uranus between 2023 and 2032 could be done with currently available launchers, and that if the mission leaves in 2031 or 2032, it could capitalise on a gravity assist from Jupiter to hasten its journey.

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