We’re Going to Probe Uranus

We know Uranus is a crazy place.

We know Uranus is extremely tilted, featuring an obliquity of almost 100 degrees in relation to the Sun. We know Uranus is stinky, a cesspool of rotten-egg aromas. In all likelihood, Uranus even rains diamonds. For these reasons and many more, Uranus is a place like no other.

And, yet, we know all these things about Uranus despite only briefly visiting this nether region of the solar system once. Voyager 2 flew into the system in 1986, reaching Uranus nearly a decade after it launched. Since then, manmade objects have not visited Uranus. The advance of technology that can study distant objects from Earth or near Earth – such as the James Webb Space Telescope – allows us to infer all sorts of things about Uranus. However, like many things in life, there’s no substitute for actually visiting Uranus.

With first-hand visitation in mind, NASA hatched a plan to probe Uranus.

Major space projects take a long time to develop, produce, and deploy. For example, the aforementioned Webb Telescope entered the design phase in 1996 and did not launch until 2021. Because NASA relies on public funding, these timelines can throw projects into disarray or complete jeopardy. To help mitigate these tensions, the agency developed a program called the Planetary Science Decadal Survey. The  National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine develops a report regarding the big questions confronting space exploration or planetary science. Inside each “Decadal” are recommendations for NASA priorities, regarding both outward expeditions and telescope time. The idea is to make big priorities a reality by funneling funding to them a long time in advance.

The third Decadal was published in April 2022, concerning the years 2023 to 2032. Titled Origins, Worlds, and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032, the report resoundingly endorsed one flagship mission: probe Uranus.

Additionally, the paper supported continuing the Mars Sample Program, which aims to gather Martian dust and return it to Earth, and something they called the Enceladus Orbilander. This craft would visit the moon of Saturn, first to orbit, then to land. Though these missions seem rather worthy of the time, expertise, and funds of NASA, they obviously pale in comparison to probing Uranus.

The cover for the third Decadal publication

What would the mission to Uranus entail?

Originally, NASA wanted to send forth the probe to Uranus in 2031, which would have reached Uranus in 2044. However, a plutonium shortage delayed the likely start, pushing the launch into the mid or late 2030s. This unfortunate situation means Uranus could escape probing for another quarter century.

This mission would include an orbiter and an atmospheric probe, allowing us to take pictures of Uranus and go into Uranus. This duo would enable the study of several questions scientists have about Uranus and ice giants, in general:

How does atmospheric circulation work on planets composed of ice? How does the weather layer present?

How did Uranus form? Did Uranus always sit where it does? How did Uranus obtain its nasty tilt? Is Uranus made of what we think it is? Does Uranus have a core? Is Uranus composed of layers? Is Uranus windy? What are the causes of Uranus’ magnetic field?

Additionally, we will learn about the moons that orbit Uranus.

Uranus and Uranus' five major moons - NASA/Voyager 2

The orbiter will likely feature a cornucopia of cameras and sensors, including magnetometers, narrow-angle cameras, wide-angle cameras, thermal cameras, spectrometers, charged particle detectors, and radio equipment.

The probe of Uranus will probably tote some apt instrumentation, including a double-focus mass spectrometer, atmospheric instruments, particle detectors, and radio equipment. These gadgets will allow us to see, “smell”, and hear Uranus when we slam into it. Some scientists have proposed sending a second probe to Uranus to augment the first one, which is currently slated to be about 280 pounds. The second probe would likely be smaller, perhaps to the tune of 66 pounds. If there’s anything better than probing Uranus once, it’s probing Uranus twice.

Some astrophysicists lobbied for a mission to Neptune because its moon, Triton, is likely an ocean world. One counter to this argument is the chance that two satellites of Uranus – Ariel and Miranda, named for Pope or Shakespeare characters – might also be watery bodies. However, the most compelling argument is simply that a probing of Neptune does not sound as alluring as a probing of Uranus.

This viewpoint is simply unassailable. Just like Uranus.

Let us all hope that researchers can keep the costs down, the public retains the gumption for exploration, and the launch windows remain possible. Reaching Uranus by 2050 sounds like a long time to wait, but, when it comes to Uranus, better late than never.

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