Every decade, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine sit down and identify our next priorities for space exploration. This is important stuff because it helps shape what we’ll do when it comes to studying space for ten years. According to a release, “the decadal survey draws on input from the scientific community through the advice of six panels, hundreds of white papers, invited speakers, outreach to advisory groups and professional society conferences, and work with mission-design teams.” This survey then “makes funding recommendations to maximize the advancement of planetary science, astrobiology, and planetary defense in the next 10 years.” Truly serious business. This decade, it turns out, one of our chief priorities is learning more about the planet Uranus. As it stands, we actually don’t know that much about this ice giant of a planet at all. But we intend to find out the secrets of Uranus.
The release shares, “The Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) should be the highest priority large mission… The UOP would conduct a multiyear orbital tour to transform knowledge of ice giants in general, and the Uranian system in particular, through flybys and the delivery of an atmospheric probe.” According to an article in The Verge, we’ve only ever had one spacecraft explore Uranus, NASA’s Voyager 2 mission. And though that mission revealed some new information about the planet, it really only briefly visited the ice giant. Long enough to glean information about Uranus’ moons and rings, but little else.
Jonathan Fortney, a professor at UC Santa Cruz shared more about our lack of Uranus information with The Verge. He noted, “Our understanding of the interior structure of the planet is so poor that we really have very little idea what the ratio of those three things [rock, ices, and hydrogen and helium] are to each other… And so there’s been a long assumption that it’s mostly these ices but that’s literally an assumption. We don’t really know that.”
It always feels shocking, and yet obvious, to remember how little we know about space. But that’s exactly what these space exploration missions are all about. We’ve only scratched the surface of space. But with every new space exploration priority, we get to learn a little bit more about the universe, our fellow planets, and the secrets that live out in the galaxy. Hopefully, by this time in ten years, we’ll get to cross Uranus off our list of unknowns. Or at least we can know what components make up the planet.