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Why our visit to the next giant planet is so important and just as difficult

Credit: SpaceX

Giant planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are some of the most awe-inspiring things in our solar system and are of great importance to space research and a larger understanding of the universe.


Still, due to its distance from Earth, especially the “ice giants” Uranus and Neptune remain the least explored, with extreme conditions that spacecraft must survive to enter the atmosphere.So they are also the least understood planet In the solar system.

our in progress research Consider how to overcome the harsh invasion conditions experienced during the giant planet mission. I am looking forward to the possibilities of future missions. This is what we expect.

But first, what is a giant planet?

Unlike a rocky planet, Giant planet There is no surface to land. Even in their lower atmosphere, they remain gaseous and reach very high pressures that will crush the spacecraft sufficiently before it lands on solids.

There are two types of giant planets, gas giants and ice giants.

The big Jupiter and Saturn are gas giants. They are mainly made of hydrogen and helium, under which is an outer gas layer and a partially liquid “metal” layer. They are also believed to have a small rock core.

Uranus and Neptune have similar outside air and rock cores, but their inner layers consist of about 65% water and other so-called “ice” (although they remain technically liquid). It has been. Methane and ammonia..

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune: Why is our visit to the next giant planet so important (and just as difficult)?

Jupiter is about 10 times larger than Earth and has a radius of 69,911 km (compared to Earth’s radius of 6,371 km). Credit: Beinahegut

Pachinko to the edge of the solar system

Giant planet Mission It’s very difficult. Still, there were some past missions sent to the gas giants.

NASA’s 1989 Galileo mission needed to slingshot around Venus and Earth to give it enough momentum. Go to jupiter, It went around for 8 years. 2011 Juneau mission Spent five years in transit using a flyby around the Earth to reach Jupiter (still in orbit).

Similarly, the Cassini-Huygens mission operated by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). It took 7 years Reach Saturn. The spacecraft spent 13 years exploring the planet and its surroundings, launching a spacecraft to explore Saturn’s moons. Giant..

The flight times of the two ice giant planets, which are far from the Sun, will be even longer. So far, neither has a dedicated mission.

Complex journey

The last and only spacecraft to visit the ice giant planet Voyager 2Flyed by Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.

It’s not that simple while momentum is being built for recovery.When started at the next convenient time Startup window For Uranus from 2030 to 34, and for Neptune from 2029 to 30, the flight time will vary from 11 to 15 years.

The big problem is power.The Juneau spacecraft is the furthest object from the sun Used solar panel.. Orbit Jupiter. 5 times apart From the sun rather than the earth.Still, if Juno’s solar cells generate 14 kilowatts of continuous power on Earth, they Generates 0.5kW on Jupiter..

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune: Why is our visit to the next giant planet so important (and just as difficult)?

Relative size and composition of the giant planets of our solar system (Earth is also shown for comparison). Credit: JPL / Caltech (based on materials from Lunar and Planetary Institute)

On the other hand, Uranus and Neptune 20 When 30 Each is many times farther from the sun than the earth.Power for these missions must be generated from radioactive decay Plutonium collapse (Power for both Galileo and Cassini missions).

This radioactive decay can damage and interfere with the equipment. Therefore, it is reserved for spacecraft that really need it, such as missions that operate far from the Sun.

Fight against heat

The huge scale of a huge planet means that the orbital speed of the incoming spacecraft is incredibly fast. And these velocities make the spacecraft much hotter.

Galileo spacecraft in Jupiter’s atmosphere 47.5 kilometers per second, The entry probe overcomes the toughest entry requirements we have ever experienced. The impact layer formed on the front of the spacecraft at the time of approach reached 16,000 ° C, which is about three times the temperature of the surface of the Sun.

Nevertheless, Of the heat shield The mass turned out to be inefficient. This shows that there is still much to learn about the invasion of Jupiter planets.

Proposed future exploration missions to Uranus and Neptune will occur at slower approach speeds 22km / s and 26km / sEach.

Because of this, NASA is tough but relatively Lightweight material Woven from carbon fiber called HEEET (Heat shield for extreme invasion environmental technology), specially designed for the invasion of surviving giant planets and Venus.

While the material is being tested Full-scale prototypeIt hasn’t flown in the mission yet.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune: Why is our visit to the next giant planet so important (and just as difficult)?

Voyager 2, the only spacecraft to visit Neptune, took a picture of the planet in 1989. Credit: NASA / JPL

Next step

2024, NASA Europa Clipper Permissions start up To investigate Jupiter’s Moon Europa, Sea of ​​liquid water Under the surface of the ice, there may be signs of life. The Dragonfly The mission, scheduled to be launched in 2026, also aims to look for signs of life on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Have a joint plan NASA-ESA mission Visit one of the ice giant planets in the next launch window. but, Wide range PreparationIt is undecided which ice giant planet to visit.

A single mission to both planets is being considered. Entry probes are also planned.But if the mission visits both planets, which planet Atmosphere that the probe explores..

If you want to accommodate future launch windows, you need to complete the mission concept. By 2025, At the latest. In other words, crunch time is coming.

Two of the most important as the mission progresses Goal For NASA scientists, it will determine the internal composition of the ice giant planets (exactly what they are made of) and their composition (how they are formed).

Other purposes include the study of magnetic fields. Very different To gas giants and all other types of planets.

They will also want to study the heat emitted by both Uranus and Neptune. Both have an average temperature of about -200 ° C. All giant planets are designed to cool very slowly because they release the energy gained during their formation.

This heat release can be detected on Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. However, Uranus does not seem to emit heat, and scientists do not know why.


Mashballs hide the ammonia lost on Uranus and Neptune


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Why our visit to the next giant planet is so important and just as difficult

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