We want Uranus and Neptune
Diego Turrini and Romulus Politi Media in INAF explain why a mission to explore the planets, the Uranus and Neptune ice giants, represents a milestone in the study of the solar system.
During the selection of scientific topics for the large part of the mission of the ESA Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program, the exploration of the giant planets Uranus and Neptune has been considered a “milestone”. Despite this, the mission of the INAF leaderships concerning these planets, called ODINUS by its proponents, had not yet found a place in the budget of the Cosmic Vision program.
The team of this mission, with a majority of Italian researchers INAF-IAPS, recently published in the Planetary and Space Science journal, a deepening of the arguments in support of a mission, single or double, for the study of the two ice giants.
For the first signatories of the article, Diego Turrini and Romulus Politi, of Institute for Astrophysics and Space Planetology of INAF, we asked a couple of questions to find out why their “obstinacy” and the value of the mission for planetary science.
Uranus and Neptune appear to be the forgotten planets of our solar system. If New Horizon is on its way to Pluto, the missions for the direct study of these two planets are not yet on the agenda after the failure of the mission selection ODINUS. What are the reasons given and how of a big importance do you think their study would be?
The exploration of the outer solar system, and in particular of the ice giants, presents significant technological challenges, in particular concerning the generation of energy needed to sustain the probes. The technologies needed to solve the energy problem, based on nuclear energy have long been available and well-established within NASA who then was able to launch missions such as Cassini and most recently New Horizon. On the European side, these technologies are still in the prototype stage and, while for the JUICE mission we were able to resolve this problem through the use of solar panels, the same solution is not applicable to the case of Uranus or Neptune because of their large distance from the Sun. The risk that these technologies could not be ready in time, was the main reason for non-selection of ODINUS. Despite this decision, the exploration of the ice giants remains one of the strategic objectives of the ESA, as emphasized by the agency, presenting the reasons that led to the adoption of the scientific topics for future missions, L2 and L3. Uranus and Neptune, in fact, can provide key information for understanding the history of the solar system and identify what are the conclusive factors that can support life on at least one of these two planets. The two ice giants also represent a class of bodies that is not well understood, but at the same time extremely abundant in our galaxy. As a result, the study is also relevant to the field of exoplanets.
Many probes are exploring or are in the process of exploring our solar system, Cassini Dawn, Mars Express and Venus Express at the next JUICE, BepiColombo, Solar Orbiter to name a few. In almost all of these probes have Italian instruments. What is the role of the Italian study of our planetary system?
In all the missions mentioned, the Italian planetology is not involved only with instruments of high-profile, but took an active part in the early stages of their pregnancy playing key roles in the establishment of their scientific objectives. The INAF community of planetology, in particular, has always played a leading role in the exploration of our solar system, as evidenced by its high turnout in the recent announcement of the proposed M4 of ESA. In this concern, we, the team members of ODINUS are participating as part of the steering committee and scientific working groups in the development of a proposed new mission to Uranus. Looking beyond the boundaries of the Solar System, in addition, based on its experience in planetology, the INAF community has been involved in an ever increasing role in the study of our cosmic neighbors, the extrasolar planets.