Aug 20, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: Solving the mysteries of Uranus and Neptune

Neptune seen by Voyager 2 in 1989. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kevin M. Gill

Uranus and Neptune — the long-neglected ice giants in the outer solar system — could be the keys to unlocking the mysteries of planets far from our solar system.

Why it matters: Scientists have found a whole bunch of planets around the size of Neptune orbiting stars light-years from our own, so learning more about our own ice giants could help us piece together exactly what's going on with those distant worlds.

The big picture: Today, planetary scientists are pushing NASA and other space agencies to explore those worlds at close range with orbiter or flyby missions.

  • Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s as part of its tour of the solar system, providing a tantalizing glimpse at their atmospheres and systems of moons.
  • But since then, scientists haven't gotten a good look at these relatively unexplored planets.

Where it stands: Some of the most common types of alien planets found by the Kepler Space Telescope were around the size of Neptune or slightly smaller, showing that planets the size of the ice giant are likely pretty plentiful in our galaxy.

  • "The more we understand about other solar systems, the more pressing it becomes to sort of go back to our solar system and look for an analog," planetary scientist Emily Martin told Axios in an interview.
  • Finding out more about Uranus' and Neptune's composition through dedicated missions could help researchers learn more about how planets formed across our galaxy.

Yes, but: Although scientists are hopeful that the next mission priorities set by the scientific community will prioritize Uranus or Neptune, the funding will need to compete with other planetary priorities like Mars.

  • "We have to balance the budget that NASA has available and the resources available with what the community priorities are," Johns Hopkins University planetary scientist Kathleen Mandt told Axios in an interview.

The intrigue: Sending a mission to Neptune or Uranus wouldn't just be about worlds far from our own solar system. These 2 planets could help scientists fill in major gaps in the history of our solar system in general.

  • Uranus spins on its side — perhaps as the result of a huge collision sometime in its early history — and both worlds have strange magnetic fields that are thought to be influenced by their liquid cores.

The bottom line: A mission out to the ice giants could help scientists piece together our solar system's history while answering some basic questions about Uranus and Neptune as well as other worlds far from our own.

2. A mission to the ice giants

Uranus as seen by Voyager 2 in 1986. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists hope that if a major mission to Uranus or Neptune does get approved, it will be a long-term visit, not just a flyby.

Background: Over the years, researchers have floated a number of mission concepts that would allow space agencies to study the planets at close range for several years.

  • Some scientists have advocated for a lander and an orbiter to fly to Uranus or Neptune, and others have suggested sending one orbiter to explore both planetary systems.

Details: Getting a close-up look at the moons and rings of Neptune and Uranus would go a long way toward helping researchers understand the outer solar system as a whole.

  • Neptune's moon Triton, for example, is thought to be an object captured from the Kuiper Belt in Pluto's part of space.
  • Learning more about that moon — which may play host to a subsurface ocean — could help illuminate the nature of objects much farther away.

Yes, but: Even if a mission is chosen in the next decade, it's not as if we'll be studying the ice giants from close range immediately.

  • "Interplanetary flight times are 6 to 12 years to Uranus, 8 to 13 years to Neptune, depending on launch year, mission architecture, and launch vehicle," according to a white paper detailing what a mission to Uranus or Neptune might look like.
3. Fighting it out for Artemis

Illustration of a lander and astronauts on the moon. Photo: NASA

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Friday that the space agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama will take the lead in developing the Artemis lunar lander.

  • However, lawmakers in Texas — the home of Johnson Space Center — aren't happy about it.

Why it matters: NASA wants to deliver astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024, and the lunar lander is an integral part of that plan. Being chosen as the lead for the development of the lander system will bring money and jobs to Marshall.

Details: In a letter to Bridenstine, Texas lawmakers suggested that the agency should have chosen Johnson to play a more prominent role in the development of the lander due to its history as the heart of NASA's human spaceflight operations.

  • According to a NASA statement, Johnson will "will oversee all aspects related to preparing the landers and astronauts to work together," and the Texas center is already responsible for the Gateway and Orion, two other key elements of Artemis.

Context: These kinds of conflicts have cropped up ever since the end of the Apollo program, according to John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

  • "Since Apollo, it's been this way that there's a competition for work, because the organization is still more or less sized to do Apollo-like programs," Logsdon told Axios. "And there's not that much work."
4. A black hole eats a neutron star

The LIGO detector in Louisiana. Photo: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

Astronomers think they've detected the ripples in space and time sent out by a black hole and neutron star colliding.

The big picture: Scientists have detected gravitational waves sent out by 2 black holes merging and 2 neutron stars merging, but if confirmed, this will be the first detection of a black hole and neutron star colliding.

Why it matters: Astronomers hope that the Aug. 14 detection will help them learn more about both black holes and neutron stars, the super dense remnants of dead stars.

Details: Researchers aren’t yet sure of the exact size of the black hole or neutron star that sent out the gravitational waves, but further analysis could help determine the masses of the two objects.

  • "[W]e’re very confident that we’ve just detected a black hole gobbling up a neutron star," physicist Susan Scott, of Australian National University, said in a statement.
  • “However, there is the slight but intriguing possibility that the swallowed object was a very light black hole — much lighter than any other black hole we know about in the universe. That would be a truly awesome consolation prize.”

How it works: The two LIGO detectors in Washington and Louisiana and the Virgo detector in Italy are responsible for listening for gravitational waves emitted by cosmic crashes as they move through our part of space.

  • The sensitive L-shaped observatories use lasers to pick up the moment that the ripples pass through Earth, slightly warping everything they pass through as they go.
5. Out of this world reading list

An Electron rocket taking flight from New Zealand on Monday. Photo: Rocket Lab

Newt Gingrich trying to sell Trump on a cheap Moon plan (Bryan Bender, Politico)

Why stowaway creatures on the Moon confound international space law (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Rocket Lab Electron booster launches 4 satellites into orbit (Elizabeth Howell,

Chinese commercial rocket Smart Dragon-1 reaches orbit (Andrew Jones, Space News)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Along the terminator

Photo: ESA/NASA-L.Parmitano

This photo, taken from the International Space Station by European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, shows the "terminator" — the dividing line between day and night from space.

  • "To be able to observe with one’s own eyes the night coming in, that line between day and obscurity, is always an experience of surreal, inexplicable emotion," Parmitano said in a statement.
  • Each day the space station experiences about 16 sunrises and sunsets thanks to its 90-minute orbit around the Earth.

1 fun thing: Parmitano became the first person to DJ from space last week. Using an iPad, the astronaut played a set for a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea.

Miriam Kramer

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