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Probing Uranus should be the top priority, say scientists

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Beyond the Moon and Mars, scientists say sending a satellite to Uranus should be the highest priority over the next decade. The satellite would provide more information about the atmosphere and general knowledge of ice giants in particular, the scientists said. The last time a spacecraft flew by Uranus was in 1986, when Voyager 2 passed it.

“The Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) should be the highest priority major mission,” the report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said this week. The report adds that a UOP launch is viable within 10 years based on current launcher availability.

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun in the Solar System, and is the third largest planet in the Solar System by radius and the fourth largest by planetary mass. The planet is about four times wider than Earth, but has no defined solid surface like most gas giants. The planet’s atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, with a strong presence of water, ammonia and methane in the solid state when the temperature on the planet drops to -224°C. For this reason, Uranus and Neptune are called ice giants.

Along with the icy blue planet, the scientists in the report also suggested that exploring the moon Enceladus should be NASA’s second space exploration priority. Enceladus is the moon of the sixth planet in the solar system from the Sun and the second largest planet Saturn. The moon is covered in a layer of clear, cool ice. NASA’s Cassini probe found evidence of a massive ocean beneath the ice sheet on the moon in 2014. The probe found water-rich plumes erupting like geysers in the planet’s south polar region, which scientists now want to study for signs of life through orbital and ground-based probes.

Apart from more distant missions, the report also justified the continued exploration of the Moon and Mars through the Mars Exploration Program (MEP) and Lunar Discovery Exploration Program (LDEP). While the space organization is currently working to send astronauts to the Moon again by 2024 as part of the Artemis mission, NASA’s Perseverance rover traveled seven months to Mars and made its landing in Jezero Crater in February 2021.

(Edited by : Priyanka Deshpande)

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