NASA is considering sending another orbiter back to one of the ice planets in the next decade. The decision was highlighted in the Ice Giants Pre-Decadal Study NASA released recently. The orbiter is expected to launch between 2024 and 2037 and will cost only 2 million dollars.
Exploration of at least one ice giant system is critical to advance our understanding of the Solar System, exoplanetary systems, and to advance our understanding of planetary formation and evolution,” the study outlined.
The study outlines four potential missions. A Neptune orbiter holding an atmospheric probe, a Uranus orbiter with a probe and a Uranus orbiter without a probe.
The fourth and final proposed mission is a flyby of Uranus to capture the surrounding moons and planets. The orbiter will also carry an atmospheric probe.
The three missions that carry probes will require less additional equipment. The Uranus mission without the probe will have 15 different types of equipment attached and will be used for a more extensive survey of the planet and surrounding moons.
The orbiter will stay in space for around 10-15 years and will derive power from radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) using plutonium-238 decay to power electricity.
The journey to either Uranus or Neptune will need to use Jupiter's gravity assist in reducing fuel needed for the journey. Interestingly, optimal times for each launch depends on which planet NASA decides to visit. For Neptune, the best time will be 2029-2030, but for Uranus, the optimal time for launch will be from 2010- 2034. The journey will also differ in length- the Uranus mission will be around 11 years while the Neptune mission will last 15 years.
So why the sudden interest in Uranus and Neptune?
Both missions will seek to find what each planet is made up of and will survey the weather of each planet. The mission will also attempt to study the ring systems of both planets while mapping the surface of each moon and studying how solar winds may affect each planet.
Scientists are particularly interested in Neptune’s largest moon Triton which may have come from the outer Solar System.
There can only be one mission, so teams behind each proposal will need to push their case for NASA funding.
We hope it’s Uranus.