It’s quite a journey.
Ice giants Uranus and Neptune are surrounded by frosty, swirling atmospheres made primarily of hydrogen and helium. And neither planet has a solid surface, complicating our efforts to explore them.
In fact, these two planets have not yet been directly explored by any kind of artificial spacecraft. The suspected liquid ocean is buried beneath a thick layer of surface clouds, largely obscuring its core from our view.
However, it is still possible to pass an atmospheric probe through the atmosphere in order to better understand its composition. But keeping the spacecraft alive long enough to zip through these clouds and send back valuable data will require massive amounts of data. Originality and ingenuity.
To better understand what it takes to send spacecraft into the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune, an international team of researchers I recently simulated Such missions will take place in Oxford University’s hypersonic plasma tunnel, with simulated speeds reaching 19.8 miles per second. The video shows gases present in the atmospheres of both Uranus and Neptune colliding with a simulated spacecraft.
“This tunnel is capable of measuring both convective and radiative heat fluxes, and provides the critical flow rates needed to reconstruct large ice intrusions. [methane]” explained Lewis Walpot, aerothermodynamics engineer at ESA. August statement.
Despite the breakneck speed, it was still nowhere near the speed the spacecraft would need to actually go that far. Researchers say the spacecraft would need an inertial velocity of at least 15.5 miles per second.
“The challenge is that any spacecraft will be exposed to high pressures and temperatures and will need sophisticated thermal protection systems to withstand atmospheric reentry for any meaningful amount of time,” Walpot said in an updated statement. .
“To begin designing such a system, we first need to adapt current European test facilities to reproduce atmospheric composition and velocities,” he added.
Fortunately, obvious jokes aside, momentum is building behind our efforts to explore Uranus and Neptune.
Earlier this year, NASA astrophysicist Kathleen Mandt asked the agency to develop a probe to investigate “the mysteries of the Uranian system.”
The 2023-2032 Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a publication produced by the U.S. National Research Council, identifies key issues for future planetary exploration efforts and includes NASA’s proposed Uranus orbiter and probe. The aircraft’s mission has been selected. high priority.
But developing a spacecraft that can withstand entry into the icy atmospheres of two planets is far from easy, even with extensive support and funding.
Learn more about Uranus: Scientists may have discovered new oceans on two of Uranus’ moons