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Neptune as 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 dedicated missions. They're hope is that if a major mission to Uranus or Neptune does get approved, it will be a long-term visit, not just a flyby.

  • 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.

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.

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.

Yet, 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.

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.

Moreover, 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.

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.

Go deeper: The national security space race

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

Up to 17 U.S. missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children were among up to 17 American Christian missionaries and their relatives kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, the New York Times first reported.

The latest: Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne identified the 400 Mawozo gang as the group responsible, in a statement to AP.

Hollywood union reaches deal with studios to avert strike

Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

A Hollywood workers' union reached a tentative deal with studios, networks and streamers that will guarantee better working conditions, meal breaks and increased wages for low-paid workers, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) announced Saturday night.

Why it matters: The deal, which still needs to be ratified by IATSE members, will avert a nationwide strike by film and television workers that was set to start Monday. It would have been the first strike in the union's 128-year history.

Bill Clinton released from hospital following treatment for non-COVID infection

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Former President Bill Clinton was discharged from the University of California, Irvine Medical Center on Sunday, nearly a week after he was admitted for a non-COVID-related infection, according to his spokesperson Angel Ureña.

What they're saying: "His fever and white blood cell count are normalized and he will return home to New York to finish his course of antibiotics," wrote Dr. Alpesh Amin, who has been overseeing the team of doctors treating Clinton. "On behalf of everyone at UC Irvine Medical Center, we were honored to have treated him and will continue to monitor his progress."

Worth noting: Clinton had a urinary tract infection that spread to his bloodstream, per CNN.

  • The California-based medical team had been administering IV antibiotics and fluids, and was in constant communication with Clinton's New York team, including his cardiologist, according to the former president's physicians.
  • President Biden spoke by phone with Clinton on Friday to see how he was doing, and the catch-up included a discussion of recent politics.