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

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.

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.

Jupiter Makes Its Closest Approach to Earth in Nearly 60 Years

The last time Jupiter appeared this large and bright in the sky was in October 1963.

What Comes After the Moon and Mars?

Space hotels may be in our future.

Curiosity Daily Podcast: Skin Print, Testing Birth Control, Race To Bring Mars Home

You’re going to learn about efforts to print astronaut skin in space with their own blood, the mystifying side effects of birth control, and the race to bring soil samples back from Mars!

How Exoplanets Became the Next Big Thing in Astronomy

To date, we know of over 5,000 planets outside the solar system. And astronomers suspect that there may be *checks notes* around a trillion more in our galaxy alone. The search for exoplanets is one of the hottest topics in astronomy, with expensive telescopes and giant collaborations all searching for the holy grail of the 21st century: an Earth 2.0, a habitable world like our own.

Watch Out! Amateur Astronomer Watches as Jupiter Gets Whacked

Jupiter is the OG best friend in the solar system. It finds all the tiny little comets and asteroids heading for the vulnerable inner planets and takes one for the team, chewing up the dangerous rocks in its thick atmosphere. It happened again just recently, and this time an amateur astronomer caught it in the act.

What We’ve Already Learned From James Webb? (Hint: it’s a lot)

That was worth the wait. Just a quick handful of months since its historic launch on Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope has flown to its observing position, unfolded its delicate instruments and ultra-sized mirror, and run through a suite of checks and alignments and calibrations. The team at NASA behind the telescopes released their first batch of images from the science runs, and besides being gorgeous, they're powerful.

Why Astronomers Care About Super-Old Galaxies?

A long time ago, our universe was dark.It was just 380,000 years after the big bang. Up until that age, our entire observable cosmos was less than a millionth of its present size. All the material in the universe was compressed into that tiny volume, forcing it to heat up and become a plasma. But as the universe expanded and cooled, eventually the plasma changed into a neutral gas as the first atoms formed.

Six Planets are Retrograde, What Does that Mean for You?

Spoiler alert: It's an optical illusion.

Related To: