Uranus: What A Mission To The Ice Giant Could Do For Science
Uranus is a pretty lonely place. It hasn’t received a visitor since a 5 hour fly past in 1986, when Voyager 2 stopped by to stock up on information about the strange world; and it found that Uranus is a very weird world indeed. Temperatures on the surface drop to a brisk -224 degrees Celsius, making it one of the coldest places we know, and it has 2 sets of huge rings that encompass the planet, along with 27 moons named after Shakespearean characters. Uranus is a huge planet that spins slowly on its side and gets overlooked in terms of mission priority, as NASA, international space agencies and private companies’ race towards the Moon and Mars.
Uranus has 27 moons in orbit, divided into three groups: thirteen inner moons, five major moons, and nine irregular moons, and all named after Shakespeare characters: Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Cressida, Desdemona, Juliet, Portia, Rosalind, Cupid, Belinda, Perdita, Puck, Mab, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, Francisco, Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo, Sycorax, Margaret, Prospero, Setebos, Ferdinand.
Despite having Neptune and Uranus in our solar system, we know very little about ice giants. We know that they are mainly composed of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur, and that they have rocky cores and unusual magnetospheres, but that’s about it.
“The need to explore the ice giants is imperative—they are the least-explored class of planet. The structure and composition of these planets differ significantly from the gas giants [like Jupiter and Saturn]. Current interior models disagree with models of solar system formation on the expected size of the core. The unique magnetic field orientations and dynamo generation have not been well characterized.” – Arizona University researchers
Another interesting phenomenon that is currently occurring on Uranus is the heating of the upper atmosphere. Astronomers and scientists are at a loss to explain the strange heating, which doesn’t make sense in terms of the way we believe the ecosystem on the planet to work. One theory suggests that huge Uranian storms are causing the atmosphere to heat up at a very quick rate, something witnessed on both Saturn and Jupiter.
Many think one of the reasons that Uranus gets overlooked in terms of mission priority is because of the lack of visits. One team of researchers and astronomers from Arizona University have developed an idea about a new mission to Uranus, that they think would get all the information we need about the planet and ice giants. The project name is Oceanus and they believe that a 2030 launch would get the probe to Uranus by 2041. The orbiter would study the planet in detail never seen before. The mission would boost the planet’s public image and it might go from the subject of jokes, to the latest buzz in the astronomical society.
“In my opinion, the simplest answer why Uranus is ignored [in the media] is because there hasn’t been a space mission to Uranus since the Voyager 2 mission. I was at JPL for the months around that encounter: January 24, 1986. However poor Uranus’ special encounter was eclipsed even then.” – to Amara Graps – Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.
Just a few days after Voyager reached Uranus, the Challenger Shuttle tragically broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. All NASA coverage was tied up with the tragic disaster.
“All of us scientists experienced that emotional roller-coaster too. On that day, we were high on the latest results from Voyager, and then upon watching the Challenger lift-off and subsequent explosion on NASA TV, numb with grief. The press went on with double duty reporting both, but Uranus never really got its full day in the public’s eye.”
All they need now is for NASA to approve the mission, deliver the funding and prepare the equipment for a new mission to Uranus. Easy right?.. Whilst we might not be settling on Uranus any time soon, we can learn a great deal about the atmosphere and ecosystems of other worlds by studying those closer to home. The information is likely give us plenty of surprises, and plenty of useful information.