According to recent reports, NASA is planning to probe Uranus in search of gas. This is not a joke, but a legitimate scientific endeavor that has been proposed by the national space agency.
Amy Simon, co-chair of the Ice Giants Pre-Decadal Study group, says that either Uranus or Neptune would be great candidates for this study.
“The preferred mission is an orbiter with an atmospheric probe to either Uranus or Neptune – this provides the highest science value, and allows in-depth study of all aspects of either planet’s system: rings, satellites, atmosphere, magnetosphere,” Simon told New Scientist.
Simon says that there is still so much that we can learn from these ice giants
“This might have implications for how you form a planet of that mass in exoplanet systems, for example,” she says.
The team has proposed four separate missions, which would include three orbiters and a fly-by of Uranus. The researchers will use a narrow-angle camera to draw out details of the planet's landscape, with a specific focus on the ice giant’s moons. The experiments would also involve an atmospheric probe that would be dropped into the atmosphere of Uranus to measure the levels of gas and heavy elements.
The team has not yet decided whether this mission will be to Neptune or Uranus.
Jonathan Fortney at the University of California, Santa Cruz says that it would be better to take the mission to Uranus, and not just because it makes for a good headline. Fortney says that an exploration of Uranus could yield significant scientific findings.
“Compared to Neptune, Uranus has a larger satellite system that likely formed in a disk around the planet (like the Jupiter and Saturn satellite systems) which is helpful for comparative planetary science, and I am excited to better understand the diversity of these small worlds,” Fortney says.
This would be an extremely large-scale mission that would take a minimum of 14 years and would require the use of nuclear power since solar would be incredibly inefficient that far away from the sun. As a result of international treaties, it may not even be possible to build the nuclear devices needed for the missions. The batteries used by NASA are atomic batteries powered by plutonium-238 and are in very short supply. In 2013, the US government began enriching more of this specific type of nuclear material, but it has not been enough to keep up with the overwhelming demand.
The team is shooting for the stars, but they have somewhat realistic expectations of how long it would take to put a mission like this together. The team admits that they would not be ready to launch a mission like this until at least 2034. However, because the planet only comes within reach of our orbit every few years, there is a short window where NASA would be able to complete the mission.
Mark Hofstadter at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said that the window of opportunity lasts just a few years, and won't be back for over a decade if it is missed.
“For Uranus, although the frequency of good launch dates falls off after 2034, there are still good opportunities through 2036. For Neptune, however, after 2030 it is pretty barren, owing to a lack of Jupiter gravity assists, for another 12 years, to about 2041 or so. So getting going now is helpful for a Uranus mission, and would be absolutely essential for Neptune mission,” Hofstadter says.
As Nola Taylor Redd on Space.com points out, Uranus has received very little attention from NASA aside from a casual fly-by observation of the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
"Only one spacecraft has made the trip to Uranus. Launched in August 1977, NASA’s Voyager 2 flew by the planet on its way out of the solar system. It encountered all four gas giants, making its closest approach to Uranus on Jan. 24, 1986. This means it took just under a decade to reach the icy giant," Redd said, according to Science Enthusiast.
"The trip to Uranus and Neptune is expected to take fourteen years at a minimum. Because of how far the planets are from the sun, any craft sent to them would have to rely on internal power instead of solar panels, meaning the craft would use plutonium-238 atomic batteries," Redd added.