Developing an interplanetary space mission requires years of planning and work. That is why the astronomical community is already at work to prepare the next great interplanetary mission, with more than a year to go before the launch of Europa Clipper. The new goal: reach Uranus before 2050.
Question of priorities. Uranus should be NASA’s next big priority, at least according to a recent survey by the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This is one of the conclusions of the decennial survey commissioned by NASA to set priorities for the next decade.
This was explained in an article in the journal Science by Kathleen Mandt, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Mandt gives in her article some of the clues surrounding the possible mission, which she refers to as the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP).
What could the mission be like? UOP, as can be guessed from its name, would be a mission with two probes, one of which would remain in orbit of the ice giant while the other would approach the planet’s surface to analyze it in situ.
From the survey, a calendar is proposed to the space agency for the start-up of the operation. The experts consider that the approval of the project should be given in 2024 to start the development of the probe. This would depart in 2032 from Earth in the direction of Uranus.
Getting to Uranus is not easy. With current technology it would be necessary for the mission to set course for Jupiter to take advantage of its gravitational pull and for it to take it towards its final destination.
Uranus and its mysteries. Once on the planet, the mission could gather important information that would allow us to better understand not only the ice giant, but also the history of our solar system. Key in this question will be to analyze the composition of this planet and the relative presence of different elements and isotopes.
Today we know that the solar system experienced a great planetary migration several billion years ago. At that time, the outer planets of the solar system, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus itself, changed their orbits to more outer ones that they still maintain, leaving the interior of the solar system to rocky planets like Earth.
Astronomers also want to know the density of the planet and to know if Uranus has a solid core beneath its surface or if it is more similar to the gas giants, whose interior becomes progressively denser without a defined border.
The planetary system. UOP would not study Uranus as a planet but as a planetary system. That is, the mission would also analyze its rings and moons. Perhaps more information can be found in them about the possible impact that we believe left the planet “tilted”, with its north-south axis rotated almost 90º with respect to its axis of rotation.
Moons like Ariel, Miranda, Titania, Oberon and Umbriel are candidates to join the “club” of oceanic worlds, along with other large moons like Enceladus or Europa and even other bodies like Pluto.
The rings of the planet are also hiding something from us. According to astronomers’ calculations, these rings are too thin and dense. As Mandt explains in his article, there must be a reason (probably a “fleet” of satellites around the planet) why these rings have not blurred into less compact rings.
Our solar system and beyond. UOP is just one of the future missions that has received the endorsement of the decennial survey of the American academy of sciences. A few weeks ago we had news of the future telescope that should serve as the “flagship” of space telescopes.
The mission of this telescope should be the search for life on planets in our own galaxy. As UOP, we still have very little information about this project and we don’t know yet if NASA will go ahead with them.
What we do know is that these two missions are now among the top priorities for astronomers. The latest survey saw the implementation of two missions drawn from its recommendations: Mars Sample Return and Europa Clipper, two missions that will define interplanetary exploration this decade.
Imagen | NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn et al/W.M. Keck Observatory
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