Scientists Urge NASA to Explore Uranus

It tops the 'wish list' of an influential panel
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 20, 2022 2:34 AM CDT
Uranus Tops Scientists' Space 'Wish List'
Uranus   (Getty Images / buradaki)

An influential panel of scientists says NASA should put exploration of Uranus at the top of its to-do list. The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) made the recommendation in its report on "the next decade of planetary science and astrobiology." The only visit thus far to the seventh planet in the solar system occurred in 1986 when the Voyager-2 probe made a brief fly-by, the BBC reports. Now that objects sized similarly to Uranus are being discovered around other stars, scientists are hoping for a better understanding of the ice giant. "We think we understand how something gets as big as Jupiter, and we think we understand how something gets to be the size of Earth and Venus. But in the middle, in that kind of sweet spot between those end-members—we don't fully understand how a world can start to grow and grow and not just carry on to become Jupiter-mass in size," one expert explains. "A mission to Uranus could help us answer that." More:

  • NASA usually follows panel's guidance: The last such "planetary decadal survey," published in 2011, prioritized first Mars (the Perseverance rover is there currently), followed by Jupiter and its moon, Europa (a mission is planned for 2024). Back then, Uranus was third on the list. The agency uses the once-a-decade reports to make its case for funding before Congress, Science reports.
  • When might it happen? Scientists think the early 2030s, if engineers get started by next year, the Verge reports. A mission launched in 2031 would not arrive until the end of that decade.
  • Jokes abound: "No giggles. Absolutely no wisecracks," Marina Koren writes in the Atlantic's piece on why this is a big deal for Uranus. "Given our history of lowbrow humor with Uranus—which is pronounced Yoor-uh-nus, by the way—one might assume that we’re pretty familiar with our cosmic neighbor," she writes. But actually, "Although we know more about the universe than ever before, we still don’t understand one of the planets in our very own solar system."
  • Specifics: The scientists recommend studying how the planet, its 13 rings, and its 27 known moons formed and evolved; why it rotates at an extreme tilt, almost on its side; what drives its powerful winds; and how its complex magnetic field was developed, Nature and CNN report.
  • Second priority: Second on the "wish list" was a mission to Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, to look for microbes in an ocean thought to be under its icy crust, NPR reports. "Enceladus is probably the best place to look for evidence of life that we can do today," an expert says.
(More Uranus stories.)

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