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NASA Completes ‘Ice Giant’ Mission Study

First Posted: Jun 22, 2017 06:27 AM EDT
Planet Neptune
Neptune, fourth largest of the planets in our solar system. The atmosphere consists mostly of hydrogen and helium, but the presence of 3 percent methane lends the planet its striking blue hue.
(Photo : Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Scientists are looking into missions to the mysterious "Ice Giant" planets: Uranus and Neptune. In the NASA-led and NASA-sponsored study, the team was able to identify scientific questions that the future mission should address and even discussed various instruments, spacecrafts, flight-paths and technologies that could be used.

Mark Hofstadter of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and co-chair of the study said, "This study argues the importance of exploring at least one of these planets and its entire environment, which includes surprisingly dynamic icy moons, rings and bizarre magnetic fields."

Uranus and Neptune remain to be among the most mysterious planets in the solar system. According to Phys.org, both have been visited only briefly by one spacecraft. The Voyager 2 went past Uranus in 1986, and flew by Neptune in 1989. This was made in part of grand tour of discovery that took the spacecraft to Jupiter and Saturn.

Amy Simon of the American space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland noted that even until now, scientists still do not know how these planets were formed and why their moons looked the way they do. Simon also said that both planets could address a lot of questions regarding the formation and evolution of the solar system.

Although Uranus and Neptune are collectively known as the "Ice Giant" planets, scientists now believe that there is little solid ice in them today. However, they do believe that liquid ocean lies beneath their clouds, and this also accounts for most of their total mass. Because of the presence of liquids on these planets, they are fundamentally different from Jupiter and Saturn, which are known as the "Gas Giant" planets. They are also drastically different from the terrestrial planets like Earth and Mars, which are mostly rocks.

It is not yet clear how or where ice giant planets come from and why their magnetic fields are different in their orientations. However, these eccentricities make them all the more scientifically important. It is why there is a need to fund a mission to either or both of them in the future.

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