Scientists want to probe Uranus with a flagship mission by 2032

Brad Bergan
An artist's impression of the sun rising over Uranus.vjanez / iStock

Looks like we can't ignore the mysterious depths of Uranus any longer.

A group of planetary scientists throughout the United States agrees that it's time to send an interplanetary probe to study the gas giant Uranus, arguing that a launch between 2023 and 2032 "is viable on currently available launch vehicles," according to a new report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, as part of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey.

This means the scientific community is pressuring NASA to build and launch what it calls the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP). And, more than simply orbit, the probe could detach a smaller one to plunge directly into the cold abyssal depths of Uranus — although it likely would not launch until the 2030s.

We need to grasp the makeup of the 'ice giant' Uranus

If the mission goes forward, the UOP's journey to Uranus could offer the most in-depth information ever gathered on the basically unexplored ice giant. So far only one spacecraft has visited Uranus, NASA's Voyager 2, and it only made a flyby in 1986 — roughly 50,700 miles (81,593 km) from the cloud tops of the planet.

It was a quick flyby, but in that time even the now-defunct technology of Voyager 2 revealed unspeakable secrets hidden in and around Uranus, including a few new moons, and a fully developed ring in orbit of the ice giant. But putting an orbiter and probe in the vicinity of Uranus could change that forever.

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First of all, we would finally know the precise makeup of Uranus, and — since scientists suspect the planet is made primarily of hydrogen, helium, ices, and rock — we might uncover much about the nature of our solar system by taking a look. "Our understanding of the interior structure of the planet is so poor that we really have very little idea what the ratio of those three things are to each other," said Professor Jonathan Fortney of UC Santa Cruz, who has written a study on the viability of exploring Uranus and Neptune, in a report from The Verge.

"And so there's been a long assumption that it's mostly these ices but that's literally an assumption," added Fortney. "We don't really know that." But sending a probe to and into the planet Uranus could do even more than reveal what's going on in there. It could also unlock key features of the wider universe.

Ice giants like Neptune and Uranus are extremely populous in the universe

Planets beyond our solar system are overwhelmingly represented by ice giants — just like Neptune and Uranus — which are thought to contain larger rocky cores, in addition to heavier elements than hydrogen and helium typically seen in the bigger gas giants of our system, Jupiter and Saturn.

Despite the blinding popularity of ice giants like Neptune and Uranus, they're the only two primary planets in our solar system that have never enjoyed the courtesy of an orbital spacecraft from Earth. "Ice giant-like planets are some of the most common ones out there," said Caltech Professor Bethany Ehlmann, one of the committee members on the Decadal Survey, in The Verge report.

"We have two in our cosmic neighborhood in our solar system, and it's high time we check them out," added Ehlmann. And, judging from history, that time is now-ish. When the last decadal survey went down in 2011, a Uranus mission was in third place for highest priority, under a Mars rover to seek signs of life on the Red Planet, in addition to another spacecraft capable of investigating Jupiter's promising moon, Europa — which might harbor liquid water both in and beneath its icy shell.

Both of the top two priority missions have become real-world projects — NASA's Perseverance is one of them, and it's still active today. The Europa mission is NASA's forthcoming Europa Clipper, which will make smart flybys of the icy moon to "taste" snippets of its atmosphere where plumes of water are potentially ejected into space. The Europa Clipper should launch in October, 2024 — with an arrival slated for 2030. But if all goes well, the UOP mission to Uranus, while still only proposed and not approved, could be on its way to explore the murky depths of the ice giant by then. And it will be the adventure of a lifetime.

This was developing news and was regularly updated as new information became available.

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