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Astronomers Make the Science Case For a Mission To Neptune and Uranus 134

Posted by samzenpus
from the to-the-stars dept.
KentuckyFC writes "The only planets never to have been the subjects of bespoke space missions from Earth are Neptune and Uranus. Now European astronomers are planning to put that straight with a mission called Odinus, which involves twin spacecraft making the journey in 2034. Their justification is that the mission will help explain how the Solar System formed, how it ended up in the configuration we see today and may also explain why 'hot' Neptune-class planets are common around other stars. They also have to overcome the common misconception that Neptune and Uranus are just smaller, less interesting versions of Jupiter and Saturn. Nothing could be further from the truth. For a start, Neptune and Uranus and made of entirely different stuff--mostly ices such as water, ammonia and methane compared with hydrogen and helium for Jupiter and Saturn. That raises the question of how they formed and how they got to the distant reaches of the Solar System. However it happened, Uranus ended up lying on its side, probably because of a cataclysmic collision. And Neptune's largest moon Triton orbits in the opposite direction to its parent's rotation, the only moon in the Solar System to do this. How come? Another question still unanswered is who's going to pay for all this. The team are pinning their hopes on the European Space Agency which has already expressed interest. But would an international collaboration be a better option?"
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Astronomers Make the Science Case For a Mission To Neptune and Uranus

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  • Yes if you get the lenses right.
  • Why wouldn't putting a self sustaining outpost on the moon be more worthy? Our knowledge of how to survive in space would increase exponetially.
    • Why wouldn't putting a self sustaining outpost on the moon be more worthy?

      It's not really a question of it being worthy. It's a question of it being super expensive and the fact that we don't really have all the technology we need to do it yet. Most notably we don't really have adequate radiation shielding for a moon base for manned missions, nor do we have the infrastructure in place to supply such a base. Not saying we shouldn't do it but that is mission that is orders of magnitude more expensive and difficult.

      A robotic spacecraft being sent to the outer planets is something

      • by Grishnakh (216268) on Monday February 17, 2014 @02:45PM (#46269075)

        We don't really need radiation shielding (not that it's hard to devise radiation shielding in the first place; it's called "lead"). All we have to do is tunnel below the Moon's surface. We already do this here on Earth for some scientific experiments that require low radiation (like neutrino detectors). Even better, it's hypothesized that there's already underground tunnels on the Moon, left over from its formation.

        So, we have most of the technology we need; we just need to send a bunch of excavation equipment up there (modified to work with electric motors and batteries, of course, since we'll need to power it using solar power, unless we can find some other energy source on the Moon's surface, such as He3). Obviously, this isn't a cheap proposal, but the idea that we need to develop some kind of Star Trek shielding technology is flatly wrong; we have all the technology now, we just don't have the money or the political will to deploy it there.

        • All we have to do is tunnel below the Moon's surface.

          Oh is that all? An pray tell, where can I get one of these robotic tunnel borers on the moon? You're talking about getting a HUGE piece of equipment to the moon which has to operate remotely, reliably and requires virtually no servicing. We don't have tunnel boring machines that fit that description here on Earth, much less ones that can operate on the moon. You can't really just hand wave this problem away. Excavating machines are necessarily very heavy and thus extremely expensive with current tech (

          • by Grishnakh (216268)

            An pray tell, where can I get one of these robotic tunnel borers on the moon? You're talking about getting a HUGE piece of equipment to the moon which has to operate remotely,

            Hey, I never said it'd be cheap, just that the technology mostly exists. We have excavating machines, we have the technology to operate things remotely....

            Besides, we don't necessarily need to operate all this stuff remotely. We should be able to set up a very small habitat for a small crew to man, and have them operate the equipme

          • You can't really just hand wave this problem away. Excavating machines are necessarily very heavy and thus extremely expensive with current tech (chemical rockets) to get to the moon. You're likely talking multiple launches of Atlas V class rockets which deliver the machines with pinpoint accuracy to the moon which then somehow have to be put together. And it isn't just the machine to do the tunnel boring, you need structural materials to support the excavation and all the other building materials for the base. I'm not saying it cannot be done, but what I am saying is that it is a VERY challenging and expensive problem for which we do not presently have the technology.

            80 years from now, people will quibble that the Americans sent heavy excavating equipment to the moon with multiple Atlas V class launches and dealt with the nightmare of assembly it all.. But the Russians used a shovel?

        • The moon doesn't have a dynamo powering a electromagnetic shield. Yards of rocky mass may prevent some of the radiation, but not the kind that moves through matter and is deflected here on Earth by the shield.
      • by The Cat (19816)

        I think we've all had about enough of the false dichotomy of "well, this is super-expensive and the only way to justify any endeavor is for it to be cheap."

        Great accomplishments are never cheap.

    • by hey! (33014)

      Well, I can think of two reasons. First, establishing a self-sustaining outpost on the Moon would cost a lot more money than an unmanned Uranus probe. Secondly, a self-sustaining Moon colony isn't basic research, it's *engineering* research and has to be judged by different standards than pure research. One of those standards is economic feasibility.

      It's not at all clear that an *economically* self-sustaining manned outpost on the Moon is feasible with the level of technology immediately available to us.

    • by Immerman (2627577) on Monday February 17, 2014 @03:02PM (#46269231)

      No it wouldn't. Our knowledge on how to colonize inhospitable planets would increase significantly, but very little of that translates to the challenges of surviving in space where you have to deal with microgravity and hard radiation. Basically almost everything learned colonizing the moon (except stuff about to the moon itself) could also be learned from underground bases on Earth. (And if you're colonizing the moon and putting your outposts on the surface I can only assume you were dropped on your head way too many times as a child. A few yards of rock make pretty much all of your radiation and extreme thermal fluctuation problems go away)

      A lunar outpost doesn't really make much sense unless you're mining and refining rocket fuel for missions to the other planets and/or are seeking to establish a long-term military presence. As an added bonus several of the mass driver or skyhook options you would want for getting fuel into space efficiently can easily double as powerful kinetic-energy weapons

      And thanks to the Moon's low mass, lack of substantial atmosphere, and considerable orbital velocity, you can make an awesomely powerful lunar tumbling skyhook that's only a few hundred kilometers long, can be made without exotic materials, and is capable of picking things up directly from the lunar surface and throwing them on transfer orbits beyond either Venus or Mars without ever subjecting them to accelerations over 1/4G

  • > Another question still unanswered is who's going to pay for all this.

    You may divert my taxes to this instead of (everything else).

    NO!!! Don't jack up tax rates!

    NO!!! Don't borrow more money!

    Ya know what, nevermind.

    • by erroneus (253617)

      I hate to say this, but it needs to be hammered home for all to understand.

      Our taxes go to pay the interest on the debt the government owes to other countries and the Federal Reserve Bank. Fortunately, the interest rates at the Fed are extremely low. Unfortunately, I doubt the government has any inclination to pay the debt down... not when there's a hungry military industrial complex to feed.

      To presume that your tax dollars actually go to anything directly, let alone good or useful indicates that one's un

  • Voyager 2 went to Uranus system in 1986 and Neptune in 1989

  • I remember reading somewhere that massive as they are they could not had been formed so far from the sun. But when they moved to the distant reaches of the solar system they did a real fucking mess that caused massive collisions that hit Venus, Mars and the Earth. In the Earth case it was the event that created the moon but Mars and Venus were smaller and didn't had the same luck. This could be the reason of Venus' retrograde orbit and the impact that created Mars' Valis Marinelis. Such an event could also

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      Venus is about 90% of the mass of Earth; it's practically a sister planet.

    • by pushing-robot (1037830) on Monday February 17, 2014 @02:47PM (#46269093)

      This is all leading up to a "Fuck Uranus" joke, right?

    • Sounds to me like a somewhat garbled rendering of Velikovsky's crackpot theories. Venus, incidentally, does not have a retrograde orbit; it orbits the Sun in the same direction as every other planet. It does have a retrograde *rotation*: unlike the other planets, it rotates in the oppposite direction from its orbit.

      • by ulzeraj (1009869)

        I don't really know who Velikovsky is and sorry about the wrong term. The thing is that a lot of chaotic stuff happened during the same period of the solar system formation.

      • by ulzeraj (1009869)

        Oh wait. What I was trying to say its not related at all with this guy's theories. I was trying to say that something hit Venus and set it into the retrograde rotation during the same period Mars and Earth were hit by other bodies.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The fact that such planets are normally found near extrasolar stars is interesting.

      It tells us that with our present technology, large exoplanets orbiting very close to their host stars are, by many orders of magnitude, easier to detect?

    • I believe that, with current tech, it's also easier to find A) larger planets and B) planets closer to stars. If you had a system identical to Earth some distance away, it would be much more difficult to detect our planets than the ones we've discovered thus far elsewhere. We're still learning a lot about planet creation and it may just be that large planets closer to their stars are easier to find and that's skewing our models. Or it could very well be our models are correct and the easier-to-locate planet

      • by ulzeraj (1009869)

        Makes a lot of sense. But its not just a technological limitation. If you think about how stars and planetary systems are formed within the nebula it is unlikely that large planets like Neptune and Uranus can born so far from the host stars.

  • At the very mention of Uranus, anal and probe jokes/comments will abound. I can't say I wasn't tempted to do the same, but that planet is already the butt of too many pokes... err jokes.

    • Perhaps the reason that we have never sent a dedicated mission to Uranus is that the scientific benefits would not outweigh the social harm caused by the puns that would be sure to follow.

  • Because their horoscope told them.

  • Atmosphere. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    "For a start, Neptune and Uranus and made of entirely different stuff--mostly ices such as water, ammonia and methane compared with hydrogen and helium for Jupiter and Saturn."

    Huh? The composition of Neptune's atmosphere is about 90% hydrogen and 19% helium. Sure, there's ices in there, but "entirely different" and "mostly"? No.

    • by bunratty (545641)
      The composition of Earth's atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, but the composition of the Earth is entirely different.
  • by Lawrence_Bird (67278) on Monday February 17, 2014 @03:25PM (#46269467) Homepage

    Twenty years to wait? Whatever technology is used for the probe and its sensors is going to be technologically obsolete countless times over by 2034. Honestly if you can't drum up funding for this and get it built and launced inside of five years shouldn't you just hang it up?

    • That is true with any planetary mission to the outer planets.
      If you can get any funding at all for it, I say take what you got and run for it. There are too many people with a silly view that if we spend billions of dollars for a space mission all that money will get launched into space...
      Not realizing that we are not launching the money into space, but paying for engineers and scientists and staff to make such a mission successful, then they will buy stuff and it will go back into the economy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I haven't looked at the mission plan, but the delay might be based on waiting for more a favorable relative position between Earth and the outer planets. Waiting 20 years to launch the mission might actually allow a spacecraft to arrive earlier than if it were launched now.
      • In that case, come back in 12 to 15 years because you aren't going to build the probe now, nor will you have any good idea of the cost of the program 20 years hence. It is too far away.

  • by The Cat (19816)

    The best option would be an American mission. That way American scientists and engineers and citizens can combine their efforts to accomplish something together. Who knows? It might even create a job or two.

    And if the European Space Agency wants to launch a mission, they are welcome to do so.

  • Here's an idea: instead of spending all this money now to launch probes from Earth, why not spend it instead on building a base with launch infrastructure on the Moon? No atmosphere, no environment to worry about, lesser gravity well...the list of advantages is quite large. The only disadvantage is it would take a while to get going. But the same could be said for the space industry 50 years ago. So we could spend a lot of money on a lunar base now and get huge payoffs later, or keep spending almost as

    • by tomhath (637240)

      lesser gravity well.

      I'm always confused by that statement. Maybe, if you could mine and manufacture what was needed for a mission you could save something. But that would take a massive infrastructure on the Moon. Without it you're stuck launching from Earth, landing on the Moon, then launching from the Moon.

      Manned space exploration is no longer necessary. An unmanned mission can do anything a manned mission can do.

  • The team are pinning their hopes on the European Space Agency which has already expressed interest. But would an international collaboration be a better option?

    Isn't the ESA international by nature? Perhaps the submitter meant to ask about a joint venture with other space agencies, but the EU itself, as well as the ESA, are both already international entities.

  • you'd be lying on your side too!
  • I hate to rain on everyone's parade here, but this mission isn't likely to happen soon. The paper referenced in the original post is a write-up of a case made to the call for ideas put out by the European Space Agency for future large missions, specifically looking for one to be launched in 2028 and another in 2034 (L2 and L3, in ESA-speak, with L1 being a mission to Jupiter and its icy moons, selected a year or so earlier).

    Problem is, the Uranus/Neptune case didn't win either the L2 or L3 slot. A wide

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