Our knowledge of planets like Mars and Jupiter has progressed by leaps and bounds in recent years, but it didn’t just happen. Scientists have sent missions to these worlds, such as the Juno Jupiter probe and the Mars rover Perseverance. But poor Uranus never gets attention, and a new report from the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) says it’s time for that to change. The group’s Decadal Survey lists a Uranus probe as the top priority.
Uranus, in case you don’t know, is the seventh planet, in orbit between Saturn and Neptune. This modest blue-gray ball of gas was visited only once — by Voyager 2 in 1986. The spacecraft passed within about 50,000 miles of the cloud tops, but it didn’t spend significant time near the ice giant. NASA used a planetary alignment to send Voyager 2 past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — a course known as the Grand Tour.
The NAS has placed the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) at the very top of its wish list for the next decade of scientific exploration. This mission would consist of a spacecraft that could stay in orbit around Uranus for several years instead of blasting past on its way out of the solar system. There would also be a probe that could penetrate the planet’s atmosphere, giving us a better idea of its composition. Currently, scientists believe that Uranus is made up of helium and hydrogen gas, rock, and various ices (and it probably smells bad). However, our understanding of the proportions and structure of those materials is almost non-existent, demonstrating the critical need for further research.
So we have very little data on Uranus, and that could complicate our study of other solar systems. With the James Webb Space Telescope about to come online, we can finally get a better view of nearby exoplanets, and many of these alien worlds appear to be ice giants like Uranus. If we have a similar planet in our own celestial neighborhood, it would be foolish not to take a closer look.
Planning a complex mission like the proposed UOP takes a lot of time. The need for a Uranus probe was also noted in the previous Decadal Survey, but it was priority number three after a Mars mission designed to look for signs of ancient life and a probe to study Jupiter’s moon Europa. We have the Mars mission (Perseverance) and NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper in a few years to take care of number two. That puts the UOP at the top of the list in the new study. Hopefully, this will prompt the agency to take a closer look at Uranus over the next decade.
The NAS says a Uranus mission could realistically be launched between 2023 and 2032. Other priorities in the report include the need for an Enceladus “Orbilander” that could examine Saturn’s moon for evidence of life. Like Europa, scientists believe Enceladus has a subterranean ocean, but it regularly releases plumes of water that a landed probe could analyze. We’ve both gotten top recommendations from the latest Decadal Survey, so maybe we’ll see both missions in the works in 2032.