As if enough money is not being wasted on other things, a top government agency has announced that it now has its eye on Uranus. That’s right, NASA says it is planning a mission that would study the gassy environments of Uranus and Neptune, two planets that sit on the very edge of our solar system. So far away in fact, that spacecraft have visited only once and That one-way trip took years.
Officials of the agency said in a statement they currently have several potential mission ideas under consideration, including flybys, orbiters and one mission that would even dive into the gaseous clouds surrounding Uranus to take samples. The study looks at the potential future missions in support of a forthcoming Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a publication of the National Research Council that is used to help determine what missions NASA should pursue.
While I normally support space exploration, spending vast sums of money on something like checking out the gas situation of Uranus appears to be a total waste at this time. If Uranus was found to have a millennium’s worth of gas just floating around the planet, what difference would it make? It would take at least a decade to bring any of it back to Earth with the current technology.
But NASA has an argument for that according to NASA scientist Mark Hofstadter: “This [NASA] study argues the importance of exploring at least one of these planets and its entire environment, which includes surprisingly dynamic icy moons, rings and bizarre magnetic fields.” Hofstadter was one of the two co-chairs of the science team that produced the report.
His fellow co-chair, Amy Simon, of course backed him up saying; “We do not know how these planets formed and why they and their moons look the way they do.” But I again ask what difference will that knowledge make and how important is it in the short term. Her response to that question is predictable, “There are fundamental clues as to how our solar system formed and evolved that can only be found by a detailed study of one, or preferably both of these planets.”
Given the fact that telescope technology has improved enough so that scientists can perform most studies of Uranus and Neptune from the ground it seems rediculas to spend the money just to get some gas samples. But researchers say that using ground based telescopes for long term studies is difficult, because telescope time is competitive and spread among several targets.
Studies suggest that Uranus and Neptune both have liquid oceans beneath their clouds, making up about two-thirds of their mass. It’s a different environment from the much bigger Jupiter and Saturn (which are about 85 percent gas by mass) and smaller, rocky planets such as Earth or Mars, which are almost 100 percent rock.
“It’s not clear how or where ice giant planets form, why their magnetic fields are strangely oriented, and what drives geologic activity on some of their moons,” NASA added in the same statement. “These mysteries make them scientifically important, and this importance is enhanced by the discovery that many planets around other stars appear to be similar to our own ice giants.”
But do these differences justify the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars just to satisfy their curiosity?