The next big interplanetary space missions

May 30, 2022

An ocean moon that could harbour life, and a poorly understood ice giant: These are the next targets for NASA's flagship space missions.

NASA uses the National Academies' Decadal Survey to prioritise its mission funding, and the body has just given the green light to two big interplanetary missions: An orbiter and probe to Uranus, and an Orbilander for Enceladus.

Enceladus Orbilander

We know that Saturn's iceball moon, Enceladus, harbours a deep liquid water ocean. It ejects hundreds of kilograms of ocean ice from its south pole every second.

The contents of those plumes are weird, with heavy carbon-based molecules that have captured the attention of astrobiologists.

The Enceladus Orbilander will fly through those plumes with a six-instrument toolkit for life detection, pick a spot to land, and capture material falling back to the surface.

It could operate for a full year, with about half of that time spent on the surface.

Uranus Orbiter and Probe

The second new mission backed by the Decadal Survey will return to the ice giant Uranus.

We've only visited once before, all the way back in 1986 with Voyager 2.

This mission will bring cutting edge science to the outer Solar System, shedding light on the planet's formation, unusual rotation, and the potential for oceans in its moons.

It would take 13 years to travel from Earth, likely using the massive gravity of Jupiter to swing it to the ice giant.

Featured Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Sources and further reading:

Meet Orbilander, The Planetary Society

Planetary Voyage, NASA

Origins, Worlds, and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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