Next stop, Uranus? An influential panel of scientists is arguing that a space exploration mission to deeply probe Uranus should be a top priority within the next 10 years.
The latest Planetary Decadal report argues that NASA should focus on sending an interplanetary probe to study the ice giant planet within the next decade. This potential mission, they say, could see an atmospheric probe and orbiter being sent to the seventh planet from the Sun with the hopes of deepening our knowledge of ice giants.
The decadal survey, which is put together by scientists from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, is released every 10 years to recommend space exploration projects for the next decade.
We still know relatively little about the internal composition of Uranus compared to most of our other planetary neighbors. It's currently assumed that the planet has a gaseous hydrogen and helium atmosphere, an icy mantle, and a rocky core in the middle, but finer details are still few and far between.
After all, scientists have only gained a close-up look at Uranus once before when the Voyager-2 probe made a brief flyby in 1986. The spacecraft glided within 81,500 kilometers (50,600 miles) of the planet's cloud tops, discovering 10 new moons, two new rings, and a strong magnetic field. Other than this brief encounter, Uranus has only been studied from afar using telescopes and such.
Neptune, another icy giant that’s fairly similar to Uranus, has also had little attention from interplanetary probes. However, since Uranus is marginally easier to get to and study, it made the cut for this latest recommendation.
With a Uranus mission being top of the agenda, the report also recommends a focus on a mission to Enceladus, an intriguing moon of Saturn, looking for evidence of life. Covered in an icy crust, this small moon has a global ocean of water under its surface, making it a viable home for extraterrestrial life beyond Earth.
The possibility of life on Enceladus raises some huge questions. If life is found here, then it could suggest it’s relatively common throughout the cosmos. However, if life has not evolved in this seemingly comfortable environment, it would suggest life is perhaps even rarer in the cosmos than we may have thought.