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We Need A Space Mission To Watch Potential ‘Mushballs’ Pull A Weird

We Need A Space Mission To Watch Potential ‘Mushballs’ Pull A Weird

Want to see a magic trick in space?

Emerging research suggests that “mushballs”, a slushy combination of ammonia and water, might explain some weird readings at Uranus and Neptune. We’ve already tracked this process in action at Jupiter, where ammonia is found deeper in the atmosphere than thought because of these slushy treats. Now it’s thought that Uranus and Neptune might be using a similar trick as their bigger solar system sibling.

At least, that’s what the modelling suggests, but we’re going to need to get a great planetary close-up of either Neptune or Uranus to see a little more. Sadly neither planet has had a visit from a spacecraft since NASA’s Voyager 2 flew by these worlds in 1989. Telescope technology on the ground continues to improve, but there’s nothing like getting a machine “out there” to give us high-resolution views. Just look at this recent picture of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft to get an idea of what you can get.

Tristan Guillot, the research director at the Observatory of Côte d’Azur, recently talked more about the Uranus/Neptune modeling research at the 2021 Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC). A release from Europlanet notes that telescopic observations of Uranus and Neptune showed a lack of ammonia in their atmosphere, compared with other giant planets.

“This is surprising because they are otherwise very rich in other compounds, such as methane, found in the primordial cloud from which the planets formed,” the release states, hinting based on observations at Jupiter it may be mushballs driving the ammonia further in than telescopes can view. “Either the planets formed under special conditions, from material that was also poor in ammonia, or some ongoing process must be responsible,” the statement continues.

There have been a few efforts in recent years discussing sending a mission to Uranus, but such an effort would be expensive and in any case, no proposal has yet passed through even the earliest stages of an agency mission development plan. And as Nature pointed out last year, visiting these planets would need to receive a community mandate such as a recommendation in the U.S. Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which next reports in 2022.

If we do want to visit those planets in the near future, orbital alignments means we’ll have to move fairly quickly. Opportunities to visit both Neptune and Uranus open in the 2030s, but with a typical spacecraft mission taking about seven to 10 years to develop, this means we’ll have to figure out budgetary allocations and give the “green light” for development in the very near future, Nature adds.

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