NASA’s New Ice-Giant Mission
The Cassini mission around Saturn is winding down. Similarly, New Horizons and the Voyager missions will end in the near future. As sad as this is: we’re about to lose many of our missions in the outer solar system, due simply to age.
Missions like these will leave a large vacuum in the space community when they go.
NASA, it seems, agrees.
Jim Green, NASA’s head of planetary sciences, just requested NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to initiate a study on how to put a flagship-sized mission into orbit around Uranus and possibly Neptune too.
Paul Scott Anderson summarized well the subjects to be addressed by the mission:
- Study origin and evolution of our Solar System – giant planet migration, with major complementarity with exoplanets
- Investigate habitability of icy worlds – to gain insight into the origin of life on Earth
- Understand the dynamic nature of processes in our Solar System – importance of time domain
- Explore giant planet processes and properties
- Use giant planets to further our understanding of other planets and extrasolar planetary systems
- Determine giant planets’ influences on habitability
If this mission(s) are endorsed by scientists during the 2022 decadal survey then we’ll likely be sending at least one big spacecraft out to one of these two ice giants to live there for many years.
There’s much we don’t know about these worlds. Neptune for example has a moon (Triton) which orbits in retrograde meaning it came from somewhere else. Could it be debris from a collision in the early solar system? A captured rogue/exoplanet? Could it be habitable (it has cryovolcanoes)?
A wealth of exploration and discovery awaits us in the outer solar system. With this news it seems like we’re not about to abandon ourselves to the darkness of ignorance.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL)