Once-in-a-decade report urges NASA to send probe to Uranus

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A once-in-a-decade report out Tuesday recommended NASA and other space agencies study the planet Uranus within the next decade to better understand giant icy worlds in our solar system and beyond.

Why it matters: Proposals published today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are not binding, but they are influential and often guide federal funding toward future space missions.

  • NASA committed to two flagship missions recommended in the last planetary science survey 10 years ago — the Europa Clipper scheduled to launch in 2024 and the Perseverance Mars rover.

The Committee on the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey designated the Uranus Orbiter and Probe as the highest-priority new flagship mission for initiation between 2023 and 2032, calling the planet “one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system.”

  • “Its low internal energy, active atmospheric dynamics, and complex magnetic field all present major puzzles. A primordial giant impact may have produced the planet’s extreme axial tilt and possibly its rings and satellites, although this is uncertain,” the report reads.
  • The mission would deliver a probe to Uranus’ atmosphere in order to better understand the planet’s origin, interior, atmosphere, magnetosphere, rings and satellites.

The Enceladus Orbilander, the second-highest priority mission flagged in the report, would entail exploring Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, specifically for evidence of life beyond Earth in the water-rich plumes spewing into space from the planet’s subsurface ocean.

  • The Cassini spacecraft in 2017 discovered the plumes contained hydrogen, suggesting there are probably hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Enceladus’ sea. Scientists have proposed that conditions around those underwater vents could support life.
  • The proposed Orbilander would analyze plume material from orbit and during a two-year landed mission to better understand the habitability of Enceladus’ ocean.

What they’re saying: “This report sets out an ambitious but practicable vision for advancing the frontiers of planetary science, astrobiology, and planetary defense in the next decade,” said Robin Canup, assistant vice president of the Planetary Sciences Directorate at the Southwest Research Institute and co-chair of the National Academies’ steering committee for the report.

  • “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,” Canup added in a statement.

The big picture: For the first time, the report also recommended NASA and other agencies prioritize planetary defense by detecting and tracking objects that pose a threat to life on Earth, saying this proposal was “more concerned with human health and safety rather than the advancement of scientific understanding.”

  • It said the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 demonstrated how dangerous extraterrestrial bodies are to Earth and its inhabitants and the importance of planetary defense.
  • The meteor, weighing 10,000 metric tons, released about 440 kilotons of energy when it exploded above the city, injuring over 1,000 people.

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