According to the Planetary Decadal Survey, Uranus is due for a mission

Since 2002, the National Research Council (NRC) of the United States has published a report that sets objectives and provides suggestions for NASA, the National Research Foundation, and other government agencies' science missions for the following decade. These papers, dubbed Planetary Science Decadal Surveys, will assist NASA mission planners in better understanding the riddles that still plague astronomy, astrophysics, earth science, and heliophysics.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) presented the key results of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023–2032 during a briefing in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, April 19th. The live-streamed event featured members of the NASEM committee explaining the main science problems, priority missions, and research methods identified and proposed, followed by a Q&A session with the public.

The third Decadal Survey, titled "Origins, Worlds, and Life," includes 522 white papers from NASA-affiliated universities and research institutions throughout the world. Caltech, the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the US Naval Research Laboratory, the Planetary Science Institute (PSI), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are among the institutions involved (JHUAPL).

Davis Smith, the senior program officer of NASEM's Space Studies Board (SSB); Philip Christensen, the Regents Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) at Arizona State University (ASU); and Robin Canup, the assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), part of the NASA Planetary Science Directorate, were among the committee members who led the briefing (PSD).

The ideas were grouped into six groups, each representing one of the Decadal Survey's panels. Small Solar System Bodies, Giant Planet Systems, Venus, Ocean Worlds & Dwarf Planets, Mars, and Mercury & the Moon are just a few of the panels available. Each of them looked over the white papers that had been submitted, selected three top science topics, and suggested which mission concepts would be most helpful in answering them.

In a NASEM press release, Robin Canup, who is also the co-chair of the National Academies decadal survey steering group, said:

In the coming decade, this paper lays forth an ambitious but achievable strategy for expanding the frontiers of planetary research, astrobiology, and planetary defense. This suggested set of missions, high-priority research activities, and technological development will result in significant improvements in human knowledge and understanding of the solar system's origins and evolution, as well as life and the habitability of things beyond Earth.

The group chose twelve key science problems, which were classified into three categories: origins, worlds and processes, and life and habitability. Each category has a number of primary topics of research (12 in all) as well as a number of specialized questions. The NASEM committee then looked at the many robotic and crewed mission plans for the moon, Mars, Venus, and the outer solar system in the coming decade.

Their suggestions are included in the Decadal Survey, which prioritized missions that they believed would best achieve the goals set forth. To begin, they determined which concepts NASA should pursue as Large Strategic Science Missions (LSSM), formerly known as "Flagship missions," in the following decade.

A robotic expedition to study Uranus was assigned the highest priority for a Flagship mission. This mission would send an in-situ atmospheric probe into Uranus' atmosphere as well as a multi-year orbital trip to investigate the ice giant and its system. The Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) mission would examine Uranus' interior, atmosphere, magnetosphere, satellites, and rings, among other scientific objectives.

The UOP was initially proposed in 2011 as part of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey "Visions and Voyages" (2013–2022), with a launch planned for 2020–2023, followed by a 13-year journey to Uranus. The project, however, was deemed less important than missions to Mars (the Perseverance rover) and the Jovian system (the Europa Clipper mission). If NASA decides to fund this mission, the spacecraft will launch in the early 2030s, when the planets will be in a favorable alignment.

The Enceladus Orbilander, a hybrid orbiter and surface lander that will examine the dynamic plumes of gas and particles erupting from Enceladus' southern polar area, was also chosen as a priority Flagship mission. From orbit and during a two-year landing mission, the mission will examine these plumes (which come from Enceladus' subsurface ocean). The goals will be to look for biosignatures (signs of life) in the plumes and to gather geochemical and geophysical data for life detection investigations.

The Survey finds many medium-priority New Frontier (NF) missions in addition to Flagship-priority projects. Principle Investigator-led (PI-led) missions with specified topics will be selected through a competitive approach under this program. The committee chose six further missions to study the solar system's numerous "Ocean Worlds" based on the scientific issues and priorities they identified.

A Ceres sample return mission, for example, might answer problems raised by prior observations, such as those made by NASA's Dawn mission. This mission would include an orbiter and lander that would investigate Ceres from orbit before landing on the surface to collect a sample of its ice crust and return it to Earth for research. Scientists will be able to better restrict the composition of the biggest body in the Main Asteroid Belt as a result of their discoveries.

The Europa Clipper and Europa Lander ideas were also proposed, which would fly to the Jovian system in the coming decade to examine Europa's surface and plume activity for evidence of life (aka. biosignatures). The Europa Clipper was deprioritized this time in favor of a trip to Enceladus, as previously stated (along with the UOP). The radiation environment surrounding Jupiter, according to the committee, is more conducive for an astrobiology mission.

Eight additional missions were identified for the NF program to supplement existing mission proposals and meet other research goals. A Centaur orbiter and lander, a comet surface sample return, an Enceladus orbiter with numerous flybys, a Lunar Geophysical Network, a Saturn probe, a Titan orbiter, and the Venus In-Situ Explorer were among the projects. The Survey Report may be accessed here for further information on these expeditions.

The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission was identified as the greatest scientific priority among future Mars exploration missions by the committee. This project, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, would include an orbiter, lander, rover, and launch vehicle to gather materials collected by the Perseverance rover and bring them to Earth for study. In Chapter 22 of the Survey Report, NASEM summarized:

Jezero Crater, an ancient lake basin with a feeding channel system etched into Noachian (>3.7 Ga*) strata, is where the Perseverance rover is gathering materials. Different types of sedimentary, igneous, water-altered, and impact-formed rocks found in this region will give a geological record of a time period crucial for understanding Mars's environmental development and, perhaps, its biology.

The return of the sample will give geologic materials that aren't found in Martian meteorites and whose volatile, organic, and secondary mineral composition hasn't been changed by impact... Furthermore, sample return will enable future studies using instruments and procedures that have yet to be developed. Future analyses are likely to produce substantial results for many decades following sample return, much as they did with the Apollo samples from the moon.

A Mars Life Explorer (MLE) mission is also prioritized, which would expand on NASA's Mars Exploration Program (MEP), which is described as a "scientific success story" in the study. The MEP, which was established in response to NASA's 2014 Strategic Plan, has deployed a succession of robotic orbiters, landers, and rovers to seek signs of previous life on Mars and give data for future human exploration of Mars, which is set to begin in 2033.

The 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiters, the InSight Lander, and the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers are among the MEP missions. The mission plan for the MLE anticipates near-surface water ice research to test in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology that crewed missions would rely on to ensure a consistent water supply.

Another significant focus of the study is NASA's ambitions to send crewed trips to the moon in the near future (the Artemis Program), as well as associated lunar operations. Given the program's lofty ambitions, which include building a long-term lunar exploration program, the study emphasizes the importance of immediate investment and R&D to allow and maximize high-priority lunar science operations with humans on the moon.

Because of the exploration and research aims involved, a Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP) is considered as being critical to the future of human exploration endeavors. Similarly, a "continuous program of lunar exploration" will continue to stimulate business collaboration and innovation, as seen by NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which contracts with commercial partners to offer lunar landing services.

The Endurance-A sample return mission should be the greatest priority of this program, according to the committee. The CLPS program would deploy a medium-class lunar rover to the moon's south pole Aitken Basin, where it would collect high-value samples from critical places around the moon's south pole Aitken Basin, similar to the MSR. These samples would be collected by the Artemis crew and returned to Earth for study.

Furthermore, an LDEP would illustrate the possibility for synergy between robotic and human operations, according to the report:

This synergy is exemplified by the Endurance-A sample return mission, a medium-class robotic mission that collects samples from important lunar areas for later recovery by the Artemis crew. This mission would allow for high-priority lunar science not attainable through local sample collection, and it might transform our understanding of the moon and the solar system's early past.

Because of the commercial, technical, and scientific benefits that human exploration provides, it has been designated a top priority. Furthermore, it serves as a source of inspiration for people all around the world, encouraging young people to seek jobs in space exploration and STEM disciplines. To that purpose, the committee considers the scientific prospects presented by current plans to study the moon and Mars in the coming decade.

This comprises the Artemis missions and accompanying initiatives to build the infrastructure needed to sustain a long-term lunar presence, such as the Lunar Gateway and Artemis Basecamp, both of which are expected to be finished by 2028. These features are also included in NASA's long-term plans to deploy crewed spacecraft to Mars in the 2030s (aka. the Moon to Mars program). Science activities should be chosen to assist human flight activities, as the committee specifies in Chapter 19.

"With a near-term goal for human exploration of the moon and preparatory efforts on Mars for this decade," they write, "the decadal assessment stresses the significance of the well-structured partnership. In this decade, a scientific exploration program may be built-in which research helps human exploration and human exploration enables science."

International cooperation efforts to develop mechanisms to provide planetary defense against potentially harmful near-Earth objects are being given high priority (NEOs). This refers to asteroids that pass through Earth's orbit on a regular basis and, in rare instances, collide with it. Extinction-level events (ELEs) have been generated in the past by NEO impacts, such as the Chicxulub asteroid, which killed the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago (also known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event).

Currently, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the European Space Agency, and other government organizations across the world are leading the charge in building the capacity to study asteroids and the long-term ability to avoid a potential collision. As a result, the committee strongly urges the establishment of a comprehensive program that will enable the formation of a "US planetary defense community" in the coming decade, which will assure detection, warning, and mitigation capabilities.

NASA's NEO Surveyor and the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission are two of the most important missions to ensure this. In Chapters 19 and 22, detailed appraisals of these missions are offered. The NEO Surveyor, which is still awaiting congressional clearance, will be a dedicated space-based mid-infrared space survey telescope that will be used to find and classify the majority of potentially dangerous NEOs.

Finally, the committee issued a number of suggestions about the State of the Profession (SoP), which encompasses concerns of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the planetary scientific endeavor (PSE). This includes recognizing the accomplishments accomplished in prior decades as well as the work required to build on them in the coming decade. As a result, the committee came up with the following suggestions:

  • Data about the size, demographics, and environment of the PS&AB community, as well as the size, identity, and demographics of the PS&AB community.
  • Identifying inadvertent and pervasive bias, as well as giving concrete methods to help NASA identify and eliminate it from its operations.
  • At the secondary and college levels, engage underrepresented populations.
  • Develop and enforce norms of behavior to ensure that all members of the community are treated with respect.

These efforts are necessary to "attract, retain, and cultivate the greatest personnel, as well as to maintain continuing American leadership in planetary science and astrobiology (PS&AB)," they write.

Looking ahead to the next decade, there is little question that intriguing missions and investigations will be available. Even more fascinating are the scientific breakthroughs that these missions may disclose. These include new information about the solar system's history, the birth and evolution of planets, and long-standing puzzles concerning the origins of life (and what forms it might take). The most fascinating aspect of these trips, though, is how they may enable future generations to go much beyond, even to the boundary of the solar system.

Post a Comment