Uranus and Neptune have unusual magnetic fields, and neither planet has yet been directly probed, which is strange because the research I’ve read on public bathroom walls said Uranus has undoubtedly been probed. Anyhoo, NASA is gearing up to probe Uranus and possibly Neptune, two planets which seem to be similar to many exoplanets but have only been the subject of one fly-by mission, NASA’s Voyager 2 mission back in 1986, which took copious photos of Uranus. (Do you remember that?)
The four missions proposed so far involve one fly-by and three probes of Uranus to detect the composition of the planet, which would help finally explain if Uranus is rich with ice X or liquid diamond or something else. The extensive probing would also aim to study the planet’s atmosphere, energy fields, weather, climate, satellites, and ring system. NASA is also curious about out why a planet as gaseous as Uranus is still so cold. That is a mystery.
If NASA wants to get all up on Uranus (or Neptune) they’d better be swift because timing is of the essence; getting a gravity-assisted boost around clutch wingman Jupiter requires launching the Uranus probe between 2030 and 2036, and the Neptune probe would have to be ready before 2030 (which is unlikely) or after 2040. The trip would take 14 years or more using NASA’s plutonium-238 powered atomic batteries (solar power isn’t as feasible this far from the sun). Those batteries are still scarce because international treaties have delayed new plutonium enrichment until 2013 and have only allowed small amounts of enrichment since then. NASA has to be selective about their use of those batteries, but we think Uranus is worth it.
(Via BGR and New Scientist)