Uranus or Neptune are the two ice giants in the Solar System. So far, NASA did not send any space rovers toward either of these two icy planets. However, things are about to change as NASA scientists have put in place a hypothetical mission to one of these unexplored planets. What would the spacecraft to Uranus look like if it incorporated the newest innovations and cutting-edge technologies?
“We wanted to think of technologies that we really thought, ‘Well, they’re pushing the envelope,'” said Mark Hofstadter, a senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “It’s not crazy to think they’d be available to fly ten years from now.”
“A rocket can launch a certain amount of mass,” he said, “so every kilogram less of spacecraft structure that you need, that’s an extra kilogram you could put to science instruments.”
The scientists’ concept about the possible probe to explore the two ice giants planets include the most advanced space-proven technology. The dream rocket will incorporate new engine, called radioisotope electric propulsion (REP), the battery gets its energy from the radioactive decay of plutonium, and the spacecraft’s ion engine uses xenon gas as fuel. Xenon gas is very stable, and a can carry a large amount in a compressed canister.
“Lets us explore all areas of an ice giant system: the rings, the satellites, and even the magnetosphere all around it,” Hofstadter said. “We can go wherever we want. We can spend as much time as we want there….It gives us this beautiful flexibility.” A craft needs automatic onboard self-navigation.
NASA missions to study Uranus and Neptune
“We don’t know precisely where the moon or a satellite of Uranus is, or the spacecraft,” Hofstadter said. “And so because of that uncertainty, you always want to keep a healthy distance between your spacecraft and the thing you’re looking at just so you don’t crash into it.”
“But if you trust the spacecraft to use its own camera to see where the satellite is and adjust its orbit so that it can get close but still miss the satellite,” he said, “you can get much closer than you can when you’re preparing flybys from Earth” at the mercy of a more than 5-hour communications delay.
There is no NASA mission scheduled to explore either Uranus or Neptune. However, these technologies of the future might inspire a mission proposal.