NASA’s Mission to Uranus Is In Doubt – UK and European Scientists Urged to Join The Project

13th Jun 2024
NASA’s Mission to Uranus Is In Doubt – UK and European Scientists Urged to Join The Project

Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) mission, which is still in the planning stages, involves sending a spacecraft to Uranus’s orbit and dropping a probe into its atmosphere. Now, scientists urge the ESA and the UK to join the mission to Uranus.

The awaited mission to the mysterious planet

Astrophysicists who study our solar system and its outer planets have been striving for decades to obtain more research information about Uranus and Neptune. This data is of great scientific value because it can lead to significant discoveries in astronomy and planetology.

Access to knowledge of the structure, atmosphere and magnetic field of Uranus, as well as its many natural satellites, can provide hints in several areas, from the unique characteristics and resources to understanding the formation and evolution of the solar system. In addition, Uranus, along with Neptune, is categorized as an ‘ice giant’ – the most common type of planet in the galaxy (approximately 50% of known exoplanets are ice giant-sized). Close study of these planets will help uncover new knowledge about similar objects outside our Solar system.

These arguments are the reason that in 2022, a special study by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) entitled ‘Origins, Worlds, and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032’ lists a large-scale mission to Uranus as one of the top priorities for the next decade.

What’s the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) mission?

As scientists say, ‘Uranus ranks higher because it is technologically achievable right now.’ From a technical point of view, the mission, which already has a working name – Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) – is now crystal clear. It will include the Orbiter, a spacecraft that will put the mission’s payload into orbit around Uranus for years to come, and a probe with scientific instruments and sensors that will dive into the planet’s atmosphere.

For the mission to be scientifically effective, it must reach Uranus by 2050. This is when all parts of the icy planet, as well as its 23 satellites, will be maximally lit by the Sun. If we subtract the time for the flight from Earth – from 12 to 15 years, depending on the launch date and launch vehicles, as well as the average duration of development and preparation of missions of this scale – about 10 years, the work should begin tomorrow. Ideally, it is recommended that UOP be launched by 2032. This will help the spacecraft use Jupiter’s massive gravity to guide it to Uranus. After all, each year of delay narrows the mission’s research capabilities.

Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) mission
Credit: NASA

NASA has already said that it is ready to plan to fund the preparation of the UOP mission in 2026 or 2027. However, according to preliminary calculations, the cost of a program of this level of complexity is estimated at $4.2 billion, which is too much even for a space country like the US.

The UK and ESA are invited to join forces with NASA

That is why American scientists urged the European Space Agency and the UK to join forces and share the financial burden for the successful and timely realization of the mission.

The need for a new round of fundamental research on Uranus and the format of a future mission has been discussed for a long time. In 2021, as part of consultations on ESA’s long-term space strategy Voyage 2050, a committee of senior scientists explicitly recommended a ‘middle-class’ contribution to the mission. According to ESA’s preliminary estimates, the budget for such an endeavour could be around 500 million euros ($537 million). But no formal commitments have yet been made.

For context

A project led by researchers from the UK, ESA, and Germany is already underway to build a probe to study the composition, pressure, and temperature of the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. This will use technological solutions similar to NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter.

To create a highly effective system of thermal protection for the descent vehicle, which must withstand the extreme values of pressure and temperature at the entrance to the atmosphere of the icy planet for a useful time, scientists used unique in its kind installations – plasma wind tunnels of the High Enthalpy Flow Diagnostics Group (HEFDiG) at the University of Stuttgart Institute of Space Systems (IRS) in Germany and hypersonic plasma installation T6 Stalker Tunnel at Oxford University in the UK. These facilities allow scientists to simulate conditions similar to the gas mixtures in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. Simulations of extraterrestrial extreme conditions are critical to the development of the probe and its sensors, which will measure the ice giants’ atmospheres during future missions. 

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