for the past For a couple of decades, NASA has been investing in spacecraft to conduct close-up surveys of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Now it’s probably Uranus’s turn.
On Tuesday, a team of planetary science and astrobiology researchers released a detailed new report called the decadal survey, which sets out research priorities for their field. Like the census, a decadal survey comes out every 10 years and has important political implications. The previous assessment by planetary scientists prioritized a Mars sample return mission and a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa; the federal government has agreed to fund them in the 2020s. This time around, the researchers argue that a Uranus orbiter and probe should be considered “the highest priority new flagship mission” that could be developed and even launched in the next decade. His second choice is to search for life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which harbors a subterranean ocean, a small part of which is sprayed in plumes.
These new recommendations could also eventually become realities. That’s because the report, organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, has broad support. He is respected by members of Congress, NASA, and the scientific community. “It is very likely to me that the Uranus orbiter will happen. This starts an interesting decades-long process of transforming ideas and words into metal and spacecraft technology,” says Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit research organization based in Pasadena, California. , whose chairman served on the report’s steering committee. “We’ll be enjoying Uranus jokes for years to come,” he adds.
The report calls for a spacecraft that would study the ice giant’s interior and atmosphere, its magnetic field, its rings and its many moons. If NASA has the funding and support to get started in the next two years, the authors write, such a probe could be launched in 2032 and spun around by Jupiter for a gravity-assisted speed boost that could help it reach the planet. end of that decade. But considering that the main pieces of NASA’s budget are now focused on Mars and Europa, launching such a spacecraft later in the 2030s might be more likely, says Dreier. So the journey itself would take the better part of a decade.
A few decades ago, Mars and Venus seemed like the obvious places to look for extraterrestrial life, since those planets might once have had surface liquid water, which all known life forms need. But there may also be other life-friendly places in our neighborhood: ocean worlds, which in our solar system are distant moons with lakes or liquid oceans, some of them deep underground.
The new report, titled “Origins, Worlds, and Life,” emphasizes such worlds as they could harbor the alien microbes that scientists have long been searching for. Known ocean worlds include Europa and Titan, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn that NASA is targeting with the Europa Clipper and Titan Dragonfly missions. But Enceladus, a younger brother of Titan, is an ocean world in its own right, and the researchers chose it as the second priority, a place to send an “orbilander,” a spacecraft that will function as both an orbiter and a lander. “It has been Enceladus’s turn for so long. He has been begging for us to come,” says Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist and director of the Carl Sagan Research Center at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, an organization focused on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.