The National Academy of Sciences has finally released its new decennial poll – and the votes are in for Uranus. The survey is an unofficial but influential, temperature-check-style analysis of NAS members’ priorities for NASA, the US space agency. The new edition, Origins, worlds and life: a ten-year strategy for planetary science and astrobiology 2023-2032, requires, among other things, a dedicated mission to Uranus and, if possible, an orbiter and lander on Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn believed to have a vast ocean beneath its ice sheet. And where there is water, there can be life.
What’s new – The research requires multiple space missions to further the search for alien life over the next decade.
- Continued support for the Mars Sample Return mission
- Five low-cost TBD Discovery class missions
- A lunar polar rover called Endurance-A to study terrain where NASA plans to one day set up a lunar base
- Two to three medium-class missions – the same type that gave us the New Horizons mission flying over Pluto and the asteroid recovery mission OSIRIS-ReX.
The program presents two different funding forecasts – one optimistic and one modest. (The modest model takes into account a 2% increase in budget.) Among the priorities that must be paid for, regardless of how the budget plays out, are Mars Sample Return (part of the current Perseverance mission), the ongoing selection of missions of the Discovery class (which are capped at $800 million), the development of the Endurance-A and the Uranus spacecraft, although development will not begin until 2028 under the modest budget plan.
Near-Earth Object missions (asteroids and other miscellaneous space rocks) also make the cut. The document proposes a survey and monitoring mission of an object of interest.
Here is a breakdown of the most ambitious priorities for the NAS:
Like the Perseverance rover on Mars, the Endurance-A is designed to store samples of lunar material – about 220 pounds in total. These samples will be collected by NASA astronauts and returned to Earth for analysis to learn about the origin of the Moon and how it relates to Earth.
The hope is that these samples will enable new science on par with some of NASA’s most ambitious missions at just a fraction of the cost. However, it will depend in part on the Artemis program and NASA’s eventual moon base.
In 1986, Voyager 2 flew past Uranus and its 27 moons. We haven’t been back since, and as such, Uranus and neighboring Neptune (visited once in 1989) are the most ignored planets in the Solar System. Jupiter and Saturn have received great flagship missions, and we keep shooting Mars with robot after robot – it’s Uranus’ turn.
Like the Galileo mission to study Jupiter, NAS proposes a Uranus mission involving an atmospheric probe that will dive deep inside Uranus. The composition of Uranus and Neptune is unlike anything else in the Solar System. They are made up of exotic forms of water called, for lack of a better word, ices – though they are remarkably hot and under intense pressure. This gives them the name “ice giants”.
Ice giants are thought to be scattered throughout the universe and are key to understanding what divides gas giants and rocky bodies.
There are several mysteries about Uranus that such a mission could solve: What causes it to be practically tilted to the side? Why are its magnetic fields different from any other planet in the Solar System? And what is the origin of their medium-sized moons?
The mission would need to launch in 2031 or 2032 to take advantage of an alignment with Jupiter that could increase the spacecraft’s speed and make it reach Uranus sooner, however.
Where there is water on Earth, there is life – even deep within the Antarctic ice shelf. Consequently, some of the few places on Earth that no have life are so destitute of moisture that nothing can thrive. This makes water a key ingredient for understanding life – and the best chemical we can think of for looking for life elsewhere. (That’s why every discovery of current water on Mars gets scientists excited.)
Enceladus is a tiny moon of Saturn, but all the evidence points to a massive ocean – with much evidence coming from gigantic plumes of water shooting hundreds of kilometers into space, even forming a faint distant ring around Saturn. If you’re looking for life beyond Earth, there are few better places to start. (After all, there are already missions in development for the other two main targets, Europa and Titan.)
The Enceladus mission concept — called an “Orbilander” in the document, which is somehow not a 1990s electronic act — has two components: an orbiter and a lander. The spacecraft would make repeated scans through the watery plumes, while the spacecraft would spend two years on the surface, looking for signs of life below. It will stand over the plumes and collect some samples as they are ejected from the moon, as well as retrieve samples from the surface.
These samples will look for chemicals associated with life, including amino acids, lipids, polyelectrolytes, and cell-like morphologies. But of course the mission may not see the light of day, except under optimistic budgetary conditions.
Explorer of life on Mars
The document calls for continued funding of the Mars Sample Return programs, but also calls for a new mission, dubbed in the document the Mars Life Explorer. Unlike current efforts on Mars, which focus on past lives, the Mars Life Explorer would search for gift life on Mars looking in icy areas with lots of water. Or at least for a planet as barren as Mars.
“While old biosignatures are a focus of [Mars Sample Return], the MLE will search for existing life and assess modern habitability by examining low-latitude ice,” the report says. “The MLE will characterize organics, trace gases and isotopes with adequate fidelity for biosignature detection; and assess the stability of ice and the issue of modern liquid water through chemical, thermophysical and atmospheric measurements.”
However, this mission is also only recommended with optimistic budget expectations.
Will the 2022 decade research missions happen?
Decadal surveys are a little tricky — they’re not really guidelines, but recommendations, which Congress, the president, and NASA can choose to adopt and fund or ignore. But several research recommendations made in the past have become large-scale NASA missions today, so the research carries a fair amount of weight.
This means that while not all of these missions happen, many of them can happen – meaning we can once again look at Uranus with a keen eye, or dig up a genuine alien hunt on Enceladus or Mars.