Uranus, NASA’s priority objective for the next decade


If we want to unravel the keys to our origins, the origins of Earth and Life, we cannot do so by studying our planet alone. Many of these primordial keys are found in other objects, in meteorites, in comets, and in the planets and moons of our solar system. Just as our ancestors did, we continue to explore our environment, the planetary context in which we emerged and in which we live. The enigmatic Uranus is the next target, chosen as the “star” planet of this next decade by NASA. The mission to the ice giant is called the UOP (Uranus orbiter and probe), will last 19 years and is expected to be launched between 2031 and 2038.

NASA’s roadmap to Uranus in the next 10 years

The Decadal Survey of Planetary Science and Astrobiology is the planetary and astrobiological scientific report produced by NASA and other United States government agencies, such as the national science foundation.

This report identifies the main issues to be addressed in the next ten years and defines the main recommendations to be followed (it is not really binding, although it is generally the main roadmap), prioritizing a series of scientific missions and objectives. .

Obviously, in previous years there have been similar reports, but with this system, periodicity and denomination, to date three major reports have been published: the first, published in 2002, for the decade 2003-2013, the second , in 2011, for the decade 2013-2022, and the last, on April 19, for the decade 2023-2032.

For their final preparation, these reports are fed by meetings and panels of experts and the so-called white papers: publications that address the issues, objectives, approaches and recommendations from different angles.

For 13 years I had the opportunity to participate as a co-author or co-signatory in some of these white papers. Specifically, in the last of 2023-2032, I was co-author of the white paper #065, Models of habitability for planetary sciencesand from #349, BIOMARS: a network of fundamental high-resolution environmental sensors.

Well, the committee responsible for the report for the next decade has identified three major high-level scientific topics: origins, worlds and processes, and life and habitability, and has defined 12 major questions.

Following the recommendations of the previous Ten-year surveyNASA has begun to study the concept of a mission flagship (Flagship) to the so-called ice giants. And Uranus was ultimately the planet chosen as the winner and main priority for the New Great Commissions.

Mission to Uranus

UPO (Uranus orbiter and probe) is still only a concept and not a mission as such, but it has become the new protagonist of the exploration of the solar system, placing it even before the exploration of Enceladus. The UOP is a 19-year mission that is scheduled to launch between 2031 and 2038, depending on when it is approved, depending on multiple factors: political, economic or even of another nature that could hinder the process.

It is known that Voyager 2 passed through Uranus in the mid-1980s (more precisely in 1986) and that no specific mission has been sent there since. The new space probe would closely examine the planet, its atmosphere, rings and moons. The mission would greatly contribute to our still poor understanding of icy planets.

Although there have been advances in the understanding of the ice giants and their moons, much is unknown about them and I would say, in particular, about Uranus. About this ice giant there are more than 3,200 publications collected in the database Web of Science (Of these, about 3,000 are articles). However, the existing models about its origin, geology, structure and composition are unclear and not yet well established.

One of the most enigmatic bodies in the solar system

As the report itself points out, Uranus is one of the most enigmatic bodies in the solar system. It doesn’t really have a real surface (at least in a stable way, like in terrestrial planets), but the planet is made up of a set of fluids in continuous circulation, moving and swirling according to yet unknown patterns.

Its low internal energy, interesting active dynamics and atmospheric composition (hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide, helium, methane, and traces of water and ammonium), its “mantle geology” of ice and other compounds ( water, ammonium, methane ice) and its complex magnetic field are aspects that we still do not understand in a planetary puzzle whose pieces are difficult to fit together.

Its moons are considered ocean worlds

It has been proposed that a gigantic impact in its early stages of planetary evolution may be responsible for the extreme axial tilt of Uranus and possibly also its 13 rings and 27 moons. These, composed of rock and ice, show geological activity and are rightly considered ocean worlds (probably with large bodies of liquid water beneath their crust). For all these reasons, Uranus is, for those responsible for the Report, the “star” planet of this next decade during which the UOP will address three main scientific objectives: its origin, its interior and its atmosphere; the magnetosphere, the satellites and the rings.

Space exploration means that many of the proposals and goals are far-reaching and take years, if not decades, to achieve. Specifically, regarding the outer planets, in 2009 I co-authored the report Technologies for Outer Planet Missions: A Companion to the Outer Planet Assessment Group (OPAG) Strategic Exploration White Paperfor him Decadal Survey of Planetary Science and Astrobiology from 2013-2022, which obviously included, among other topics and objectives, the exploration of Uranus.

Thus, the fact that Uranus is a priority target for the next decade represents for me not only scientific satisfaction, but also personal satisfaction. I am convinced that we are going to experience a prodigious decade in the exploration of our solar system, during which, in addition to the missions of the vagabond Currently on Mars, with exploration of certain icy moons and Uranus as top priority, we will witness many more exciting planetary and astrobiological surprises.

We are the space generation

Space exploration is exciting and a source of knowledge that can only be approached from a multidisciplinary approach. Really, what we do is what we have always done: explore. Better understand our environment, our surroundings, the other lands, the mountains, the oceans, the atmosphere and now the cosmos.

For the first time, life is entering what Carl Sagan called the cosmic ocean and we are the generation from outer space who are experiencing this process; we are lucky to witness something that in the future will be part of encyclopedias about this milestone and how it happens.

Character font: Jesus Martinez-Frias / THE CONVERSATION

Reference article: https://theconversation.com/uranus-the-priority-target-of-nasa-for-the-next-decada-182257

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