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After Mars, Where to Next? Scientists Say Uranus

Uranus, as captured in 1986 by the spacecraft Voyager 2 from approximately 7.8 million miles. (Photo: NASA/JPL)

The seventh planet from the Sun should be NASA’s ‘highest priority large mission,’ according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

By Stephanie Mlot

Move over, Mars: NASA’s next interplanetary trip may land on Uranus.

According to a survey from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM)—which asks scientists to weigh in on where space travel should go next, among other things—visiting the seventh planet from the Sun should be the “highest priority large mission.”

The proposed Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP), first recommended by the decadal survey in 2011, would launch by 2032 and conduct a multi-year tour to “transform knowledge of ice giants in general, and the Uranian system in particular,” through flybys and an atmospheric probe.

According to NASA, only one spacecraft—Voyager 2—has visited distant Uranus and it only spent about six hours gathering data on the planet, its rings, and moons in 1986. “The rest of what we know about Uranus comes from observations via the Hubble Space Telescope and several powerful ground-based telescopes,” the space agency says.

Second-highest on NASEM’S list, meanwhile, is the Enceladus Orbilander, designed to search for evidence of life on Saturn’s Enceladus moon from orbit and during a two-year landed mission.

“This report sets out an ambitious but practicable vision for advancing the frontiers of planetary science, astrobiology, and planetary defense in the next decade,” says Robin Canup, co-chair of the NASEM steering committee, in a statement. “This recommended portfolio of missions, high-priority research activities, and technology development will produce transformative advances in human knowledge and understanding about the origin and evolution of the solar system, and of life and the habitability of other bodies beyond Earth.”

Recommendations for the survey are based on input from the scientific community, cover three themes (origins, worlds and processes, and life and habitability), and define 12 priority questions about planetary science and astrobiology.

Other priorities include planetary defense via improved near-Earth object detection, tracking, and characterization capabilities; the continuation of NASA’s Discovery program; further exploration beyond Mars, like Venus and “ocean worlds”; and, of course, more funding.

The report also encourages investment in the people who will make these missions possible, particularly students from underrepresented communities at secondary and college levels. “Ensuring broad access and participation in the field is essential to maximizing scientific excellence and safeguarding the nation’s continued leadership in space exploration,” says Philip Christensen, Regents Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and steering committee co-chair.

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.

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