Astronomers have detected X-rays from Uranus for the first time, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, as shown in this image from March 2021. This result may help scientists learn more about this enigmatic ice giant planet in our solar system.  Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun and has two sets of rings around its equator. The planet, which has four times the diameter of Earth, rotates on its side, making it different from all other planets in the solar system. Since Voyager 2 was the only spacecraft to ever fly by Uranus, astronomers currently rely on telescopes much closer to Earth, like Chandra and the Hubble Space Telescope, to learn about this distant and cold planet that is made up almost entirely of hydrogen and helium.

Astronomers have detected X-rays from Uranus for the first time, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, as shown in this image from March 2021. This result may help scientists learn more about this enigmatic ice giant planet in our solar system. Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun and has two sets of rings around its equator. The planet, which has four times the diameter of Earth, rotates on its side, making it different from all other planets in the solar system. Since Voyager 2 was the only spacecraft to ever fly by Uranus, astronomers currently rely on telescopes much closer to Earth, like Chandra and the Hubble Space Telescope, to learn about this distant and cold planet that is made up almost entirely of hydrogen and helium.

Photo by: X-ray: NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn et al; Optical: W.M. Keck Observatory

X-ray: NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn et al; Optical: W.M. Keck Observatory

NASA Has Announced Plans for the Next Decade of Space Missions, And It’s Awesome

Personally speaking, I feel like we’ve been focusing on Mars a little bit too much recently. Sure, the Red Planet is all sorts of awesome – so awesome it may have once been a home for life – but with more than half a dozen orbiters, landers, and rovers, it’s certainly got its due.

May 05, 2022

What if instead, we started visiting, I don’t know, literally the rest of the solar system?

Thankfully the astronomical community felt the same way, as they expressed in their decadal survey outlining the priorities that the planetary scientists should take in the coming ten years. This survey doesn’t necessarily select missions, but it does serve as a guide so that funding agencies – and in this case, we’re looking at you, NASA – can get a good sense of what the community is getting excited about.

This is an image of the planet Uranus taken by the spacecraft Voyager 2. NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, in January 1986.

This is an image of the planet Uranus taken by the spacecraft Voyager 2. NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, in January 1986.

Photo by: NASA/JPL

NASA/JPL

This is an image of the planet Uranus taken by the spacecraft Voyager 2. NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, in January 1986.

And I’ll try not to snicker as I write that planetary scientists are really excited by the possibility of visiting Uranus. Specifically, with the poorly named Uranus Orbiter and Probe. Cringe aside, it’s a great idea for a mission. The ice giants of the solar system, Uranus and Neptune, are dramatically different than their gassy cousins Jupiter and Saturn, and we haven’t had a mission to either of them since the Voyager probes a generation ago.

If giant worlds aren’t your thing, another high priority for the next decade will be the development of an “orbilander” to Enceladus, one of the many tiny moons of Saturn. Normally tiny moons don’t get a lot of attention, but the icy surface of that little world hides a globe-spanning liquid water ocean. The mission concept calls for the spacecraft to spend some time orbiting Enceladus, splashing through the plumes of the ice volcanos that occasionally erupt from the surface before going in for a landing and a two-year surface visit.

Seen from outside, Enceladus appears to be like most of its sibling moons: cold, icy and inhospitable. But under that forbidding exterior may exist the very conditions needed for life.  Over the course of the Cassini mission, observations have shown that Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) not only has watery jets sending icy grains into space; under its icy crust it also has a global ocean, and may have hydrothermal activity as well. Since scientists believe liquid water is a key ingredient for life, the implications for future missions searching for life elsewhere in our solar system could be significant.

Seen from outside, Enceladus appears to be like most of its sibling moons: cold, icy and inhospitable. But under that forbidding exterior may exist the very conditions needed for life. Over the course of the Cassini mission, observations have shown that Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) not only has watery jets sending icy grains into space; under its icy crust it also has a global ocean, and may have hydrothermal activity as well.

Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Seen from outside, Enceladus appears to be like most of its sibling moons: cold, icy and inhospitable. But under that forbidding exterior may exist the very conditions needed for life. Over the course of the Cassini mission, observations have shown that Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) not only has watery jets sending icy grains into space; under its icy crust it also has a global ocean, and may have hydrothermal activity as well.

Those two are big, flashy, expensive missions. On the cheaper side of things (as space missions go, that is), the decadal survey highlights a few promising options. One is the Mars Life Explorer (sigh), a lander targeting the water-rich polar ice caps. Another is a rover for the Moon that will send a lunar sample back to the Earth. Still, other options are dropping a probe into the atmosphere of Saturn or orbiting its moon Titan to get a better handle on its hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere of the lakes of liquid methane on its surface.

The decadal survey serves as a wish list for planetary scientists, moderated by the best guess that the community can make when it comes to budgets for NASA over the coming ten years. Ultimately it will be up to the financial capabilities of that organization to make these dreams happen, and those capabilities are set by Congress. Which means that the buck stops with you.

Dive Deeper into the Universe

Journey Through the Cosmos in an All-New Season of How the Universe Works

The new season premieres on Science Channel and streams on discovery+.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

NASA is using Navajo Language to Name Rocks and Soil on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance team is working in tandem with the Navajo Nation to use their native language in defining rocks and soil found on Mars. 50 words have been approved to name these landmarks.

Mars is Getting International

Things are getting a little crowded at the red planet.

Meet Ingenuity: NASA’s First Mars Helicopter

Perseverance with Ingenuity strapped to its belly launched on July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Mars Rover and Mars Helicopter safely landed on the dusty surface at 3:55P ET on February 18, 2021, after traveling nearly 292.5 million miles.

MOXIE: Carbon Dioxide Turns Into Oxygen on Mars

Recently, Perseverance produced 5.4 grams of oxygen on Mars through an instrument named MOXIE. Can humans live on Mars with the help of this device? Let’s find out.

It’s Time to Study Space Sexology

Scientists say the time has come to study sex in space if humanity will ever stand a chance at surviving on other planets.

Ingenuity Takes First Flight on Mars

In a historic first, Ingenuity successfully flew on the Red Planet. The Mars helicopter was in the air for about 40 seconds.

Evidence for Water on Mars Might be Clay Instead (Bummer!)

What’s shiny and lives under the Martian ice? No, it’s not a joke. It’s clay. Just…clay.

Why Mercury Matters

At first, the planet Mercury isn't much to look at. It has a surface only a mother could love, as desolate and empty as the Moon and pock-marked with crater after crater. But this planet has a secret, which has folks wanting to know more.

Yet Another Exoplanet That You’ll Never Want to Visit

Ready for an exotic vacation? How about…really exotic? Tired of tropical beaches or snow-covered mountains? Let’s go…out of this world.

Why Charting the Most Extreme Objects in the Solar System Matters

So the astronomers called it “FarFarOut”, which is mostly a joke because the last time they found such a distant object it they nicknamed it “FarOut”, and this new world is much, much, farther out.

Related To: