Kathleen Mandt, a planetary scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, has published an article (ref.) in the journal Science advocating for NASA to send a dedicated probe to the planet Uranus. It’s worth noting that a window for launching such a probe is opening up in 2032.
More Mars, Less Uranus
Planetary scientists have certainly devoted a lot of time to studying Mars compared to other planets. In part, this is due to its proximity, but primarily because Mars has a surface on which spacecraft can physically land. Planets like Uranus, which instead have a dense atmosphere, are more difficult to study, especially if they do not provide a place to land.
However, Mandt argues that such research is important. Starting the development of a probe to study Uranus, she adds, would be a good beginning. The right time to begin feasibility studies is now because the next launch window to Uranus would be in 2032, when the alignment of Jupiter with Earth would allow a slingshot maneuver towards Uranus.
The Unique Characteristics of the Icy Giant
Planet Uranus is considered the oddball of the Solar System because of its 90-degree inclination to its orbital path. Its inclination gives it the appearance of rolling along an orbit plane. This inclination also gives the planet an extreme seasonal variation as it orbits the sun once every 84 years.
Only one spacecraft has ventured to Uranus so far, Voyager II, in 1986. The ice giant is so named because of the two heavy elements that make up the bulk of its atmosphere: helium and hydrogen. It also has 27 moons that follow its odd inclination and possesses what Mandt describes as “strange rings”.
Little else is known about the planet at present, which is why NASA needs to place a probe in permanent orbit around it. The probe could detect the true nature of the planet’s atmosphere, determine if its core is made of rock or ice, and perhaps explain how it came to have such a strange inclination. The Uranus probe would undoubtedly be the first permanent human-made artifact to enable the study and understanding of the formation of the gas giants in our Solar System