A Spacecraft to Uranus Could Reveal the Secrets of the Ice Giants

spacecraft to uranus

Uranus and Neptune offer key insights into our solar system’s history and surroundings, yet scientists need to dedicate years of study in order to discover their secrets.

As part of that plan, an Uranus mission should launch within the next decade so as to reach Uranus at fall equinox and illuminate all its rings and moons, something recommended by the decadal survey as an encouraging step.

The Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP)

Spacecraft have already visited Mercury, Venus, Mars, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn; but no probe has ever made the journey to Uranus or its moons – although that could soon change.

UOP aims to unlock mysteries surrounding this fascinating ice giant with its intricate rings and moons. To achieve this goal, an orbiter will collect data continuously while also sending out a probe that will penetrate its atmosphere and conduct atmospheric studies.

UOP’s goal is to understand how Uranus was formed and its interactions with other solar systems. Their mission to Uranus and its neighbors may help scientists further their models for how giant planets form, migrate, and affect other solar systems’ evolution.

Researchers would also like to understand Uranus and its moons’ global energy balance; Voyager 2 observations indicate this energy flow may be driven primarily by atmospheric phenomena; more precise measurements will need to be conducted. Furthermore, understanding Uranus’ classic satellites such as Miranda and Ariel which contain large tectonic features with potential cryovolcanic activity is of critical importance for this research.

The mission’s goals

A probe could investigate Uranus’s rings, trying to discern why their formation defies gravity laws. Furthermore, it would examine its climate and magnetic field – seeking an answer as to what causes air masses to rise up over equatorial regions and sink away over polar regions similar to Earth.

Mission scientists could also investigate what processes form and maintain Earth’s system of narrow rings without meaningful spacing, wide rings with fine dust structures, and dense moon systems (Figure 7; Elliot et al. 1978).

Orbiters at Jupiter-like planets have previously revealed surprises unobservable by flyby encounters alone. To take full advantage of Jupiter’s gravity to accelerate its journey toward Uranus before its equinox occurs in 2045 and give scientists the best opportunity for studying this intriguing world, launch by 2032 would be optimal and allow scientists to get unparalleled views of it all.

The mission’s design

Uranus would benefit greatly from being visited by a spacecraft that can peer beneath its clouds and discover any effects from an ancient collision, as well as gain more insight into its rings that seem to defy physics by contracting at times that scientists simply can’t explain.

Uranus’ zonal and meridional circulation patterns could provide valuable insight into its atmosphere’s structure, helping researchers understand its energy balance and vertical heat transport–in stark contrast with Jupiter’s finely banded winds and temperatures.

Uranus would mark the first mission ever that would include both an orbiter and probe, similar to Saturn’s flagship spacecraft. According to the National Academy of Sciences’ 2022 planetary science decadal survey, work should begin by 2024 on this “flagship” mission with launch scheduled between 2031-2032 using gravitational support from Jupiter; arrival would occur between 2044-2045.

The mission’s timeline

Voyager 2 passed by Uranus during its grand tour of the outer Solar System back in 1986 and left behind only brief images that scientists would love to examine further and in greater depth.

An UOP would shed light on, among other mysteries, why Uranus and Neptune are so similar, whether the planets switched positions at any point, and how these ice giants developed over time. According to the decadal survey’s authors, meaningful funding should start for such a mission in 2024 with launch window set for around 2028.

Cartwright and many of his fellow early and midcareer planetary scientists will be long gone by the time this flagship mission launches; therefore, he’s counting on future generations to carry his dream forward – something which could fundamentally alter our view of our Solar System.

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