Get your chuckles and puns out now, friends - we're going to talk about Uranus.
A newly released survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concludes that a Uranus Orbiter and Probe should be the "highest priority large mission" of this decade. This survey - conducted once every 10 years - is intended to help shape funding and research efforts from now through 2032.
The survey calls for a specific spacecraft that will orbit Uranus and map its gravitational and magnetic fields. The orbiter would deliver an atmospheric probe into the planet's hydrogen sulfide-rich skies while circling Uranus for several years.
If you'd like to read the survey document for yourself, you'd better load up on some caffeine - it's a whopping 780 pages long! This paper comes on the heels of the decadal survey of astronomical goals, which was published last November. Defined by hundreds of members in these fields, the survey outlines scientific priorities and funding recommendations for planetary science, astrobiology, and planetary defense.
The report is organized around 12 priority science topics, including exoplanets and the structures of distant worlds, how our solar system began and has evolved, and why life manages to exist on Earth (and how to understand its potential existence elsewhere). The survey recommends pursuing several missions within different NASA programs, with the priority on Uranus being the highest.
Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spearheaded the case for the Uranus mission in a white paper. The paper asserts that the main goals should be to investigate the composition and structure of Uranus, the nature of its magnetic field, how its internal heat moves to the surface, and specifics of its atmosphere, moons, and ring system. Only so much detail has been observed about the ice giant that looms 1.92 billion light years away, so a more close-up observational approach is more than warranted.
The report says that a launch to Uranus between 2023 and 2032 could be done with available launchers, and that if the mission leaves in 2031 or later that it could capitalize on a gravity assist from Jupiter in order to hasten its journey.
It's exhilarating - and a little terrifying - to think about all of the unexplored potential of our solar system and beyond. What do you think about the potential of a Uranus mission? Share with me!