NASA Announces Plans to Visit Ice Giants Uranus and Neptune

Solar System
Tuesday, 25 August 2015 - 2:36PM

After completing their historic mission to Pluto, NASA is planning a potential unmanned visit to the "ice giants" of our solar system: Uranus and Neptune. If the mission comes to fruition, this would mark our first jaunt to Neptune in over 26 years.

NASA will have a busy few years, as Cassini's mission to Saturn and Juno's mission to Jupiter are both expected to finish their observations in 2017, the mission to Mars is set for 2020, and the Europa mission is slated for 2025. But afterwards, NASA will be without an immediate deep space destination. As their next endeavor, NASA is planning to send an unmanned spacecraft to the coldest planets in our solar system (now that Pluto isn't a planet anymore, bah humbug).

NASA's head of planetary sciences Jim Green made the announcement at the Outer Planets Assessment Group meeting in Laurel, Maryland. If the mission is approved, it should cost less than $2 billion, and will employ the state-of-the-art SLS rocket launch system currently being developed by NASA. 

The mission would not only give us more information about Neptune and Uranus themselves, but could also yield insight into the origins of life on Earth. Scientists believe that the migration patterns of ice giants in the early solar system may have indirectly lead to the advent of water on terrestrial planets, such as our own.

"The composition and chemistry of ice giant atmospheres provides clues about their formation, evolution and current state," explains a research paper referenced as part of NASA's presentation at the conference. "Migration of the ice giants early in our solar systems history may be responsible for the late heavy bombardment of the inner solar system, thought to have provided many of the volatiles (such as water) found on the terrestrial planets today."

The last proposed mission to Neptune, called Argo, was grounded when NASA discovered that they did not have enough plutonium to power their spacecrafts. But as the space agency recently received funding for more plutonium, they can consider missions that take spacecrafts into the outer reaches of our solar system once again.