The icy worlds at the end of our solar system still remain somewhat mysterious to astronomers due to the great distance between Earth and Uranus and Neptune, the seventh and eight planets from the Sun. The NASA spacecraft Voyager 2 conducted flybys of Neptune and Uranus in 1989, and we haven’t been back since.
NASA scientists still aren’t sure how these two ice giants have such strong magnetic fields or how their thick, gaseous atmospheres managed to form. To study these mysteries and more, NASA scientists have proposed a series of missions to our solar system’s ice giants that would take place before or around 2030.
While tabloids are having a field day writing innuendo-filled articles about the proposed missions involving Uranus, the scientific knowledge which could be gained by exploring these ice giants could revolutionize our understanding of two of our cosmic neighbors. According to a report NASA recently published, these two “ice giants” defy current models of planetary formation:
Three key points highlight the importance of sending a mission to our ice giants, Uranus and Neptune. First, they represent a class of planet that is not well understood, and which is fundamentally different from the gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn) and the terrestrial planets. A second key factor in their importance is that ice giants are extremely common in our galaxy. The final point to emphasize about ice giants is that they challenge our understanding of planetary formation, evolution and physics.
One of the missions NASA has proposed would see a spacecraft conduct a fly-by of Uranus close enough to probe the planet’s upper atmosphere and measure the gasses and heavy elements it contains. Three other missions have been proposed, some of which would see a narrow-angle camera orbit the planet in order to photograph Uranus, Neptune, and their moons in unprecedented detail. Studying them close up could be a means of revising much of what we know about how planets in our solar system were created – while also providing science news outlets with puns and double-entendres for weeks.