Mission planned to probe Uranus

British space scientists are leading plans to send a probe to explore giant ice planet Uranus. They have put forward a detailed proposal to the European Space Agency to launch a joint mission with NASA to the distant world, 1.8 billion miles from the sun.

Uranus imaged by the Hubble space telescope in 1998
Uranus imaged by the Hubble space telescope in 1998 (NASA/ESA)

It would give scientists their first close-up views of Uranus since NASA’s Voyager 2 flew past and captured fleeting pictures 25 years ago.

The £400million mission is designed to go in orbit to study the rings around Uranus and answer questions such as why it gives off so little heat.

Uranus – first spotted by Sir William Herschel from Bath, England, in 1781 – also has the most powerful wind observed in the solar system, blowing at more than 500mph.

The planet is unusual because it is tilted right over on its side. Astronomers believe this was caused when Uranus was given a mighty whack by another world in a cosmic collision.

More than 160 scientists are backing the Uranus Pathfinder project which is led by Dr Chris Arridge, of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey.

He told Skymania in an exclusive interview: “We’ve only really scratched the surface of Uranus. It is very difficult to observe from Earth because any detail is smeared out.

“Since Voyager flew by we know the rings and atmosphere have changed. We need close-up measurements. Uranus is ripe for learning a lot from. It is so different among the planets.

“We tend to group Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as the gas giant planets. But Jupiter and Saturn are dominated by hydrogen and helium with small rocky cores.

“When you go to Uranus and Neptune you find their composition is dominated a lot more by rock and ice. There is a lot more water in their atmospheres, a lot more methane.”

He added: “One of the big mysteries about Uranus is that it doesn’t emit much heat at all. Its axis is also highly tilted to its orbit so essentially it rolls around the solar system.

“It is thought that something the size of Mars or Earth hit Uranus early in the solar system and tilted it into its side, and that may have caused a massive loss of primordial heat.”

Uranus takes 84 years to orbit the Sun which leads to extreme seasons. Dr Arridge said: “Because there is so little heat coming from inside Uranus, its atmosphere is completely driven by force of sunlight. And because it has got this large tilt in its axis one pole is continually in sunlight for 42 years while the other is in darkness and then the situation is reversed for 42 years.”

The nuclear-powered probe, which the scientists hope to launch in 2021 would take an incredible 15 years to travel the vast distance to Uranus. It will be sent zipping past other planets including Venus and Saturn to help build up speed, like a game of interplanetary snooker.

Finally it will go into orbit around Uranus to study the planet, its five main moons and other smaller natural satellites.

Uranus Pathfinder is being proposed as an M-class (medium-class) mission for ESA. But Dr Arridge said: “We see this as medium scale only in terms of price. For the amount of science you get back it is a large scale mission for quite low cost.”

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

19 thoughts on “Mission planned to probe Uranus

  • 01/04/2011 at 2:01 am
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    This is great! But what needs to be done is a step further and develope 2 probes, one to go into orbit around Uranus and the other to go into orbit around Neptune. They both would lift off together in tandom and independently vectored to Uranus and Neptune. Both probes would have identical sets of instruments and capability. This project needs to be expanded to include both outer giants.

  • 01/07/2011 at 8:00 pm
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    You would think someone would proofread these things

  • 01/07/2011 at 9:26 pm
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    @J.Major: Sorry, that would belong to this story–http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2010/0606/Need-help-finding-Uranus-For-the-next-few-months-it-ll-be-next-to-Jupiter

  • 01/07/2011 at 9:27 pm
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    J.Major I have to agree. It even tops “Having Trouble Finding Uranus?”

  • 01/08/2011 at 4:28 am
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    Whatever he is smoking: I want some of THAT!

    Anyone need to deal with ‘Klingons’?

    Actually, I love the mission. But, it needs better PR.

    Alive and well, in San Diego

  • 01/08/2011 at 7:30 pm
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    I died laughing.
    When I read it to my husband he thought I was reading it from “the onion”.

  • 01/09/2011 at 3:05 pm
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    as a scientist, i recommend about a barrel of water based lubrication for that endeavor….

  • 01/10/2011 at 12:42 am
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    and rife,
    let’s not forget the latex glove ….

  • 01/10/2011 at 4:57 am
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    I sent this link to friends and family. The title is completely hilarious! On a more serious note, I would love to see more exploration of the outer planets. After the Cassini mission to Saturn, I think we need to revisit Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune as well. A mission to Neptune to study Triton would be high on my list.

  • 01/11/2011 at 2:46 am
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    “Uranus . . . also has the most powerful wind observed in the solar system, blowing at more than 500mph.”

    Oh come on!! LOL, somebody had to know what they were writing!

  • 01/12/2011 at 1:09 am
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    I hope it’s not mine…

  • 01/13/2011 at 2:16 am
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    Oh, Uranus the PLANET.

    Seriously though, good to see the writer and the Christian Science Monitor, which picked up this story, have a sense of humor.

  • 01/13/2011 at 6:54 am
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    “We’ve only really scratched the surface of Uranus.”

Comments are closed.