Sample Returns and Ocean Worlds Dominate Recommendations to NASA ::


Every ten years, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine release a report outlining the questions planetary scientists hope to answer and the observations needed to answer them. Page 800 Origins, Worlds and Life: A 10-Year Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032 released today, focuses on answering three very big questions:

  • Origins: What was the early solar system like? Are solar systems like ours rare or common across the universe?
  • Worlds and processes: How have solar system bodies and their atmospheres, from giant planets to small bodies like asteroids and comets, changed over time?
  • Life and habitability: What conditions led to habitable environments? Do these conditions exist elsewhere in the solar system? Is there evidence of past or present life there? And what can we do to ensure that near-Earth object (NEO) impacts don’t threaten that habitability.

Panels of experts in areas such as Mars, the Moon, planets large and small, have reviewed contributions from hundreds of white papers over the past several years to provide this scientific community consensus on where NASA and other space agencies should focus their efforts and funding. Just as you don’t spend all of your funds in one place, the report recommends NASA balance its missions between programs in three cost categories: Lighthouse (large), New Frontiers and Lunar Discovery (medium), and smaller ones. such as planetary defense.

Some clear themes emerge from the report.

Planetary atmospheres

The flagship mission recommended by the report went to the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP), a planned mission to orbit the giant ice planet and its moons. Scientists are eager to learn more about its atmosphere. Are there oceans on Uranian moons? Are the rings around the planet (most planets in our solar system have rings, not just Saturn) mostly made of rock or ice? It would take around 13 years to get there, even with gravity assist from Jupiter with the first launch opportunity coming in June 2031.

A smaller mission planned to probe Saturn’s atmosphere would study the severe weather conditions atop the gas giant’s clouds and peer deep below to better understand vertical wind shear.

Planetary oceans

After the Cassini mission discovered lakes and seas of methane beneath a surface layer of ice on Saturn’s moon Titan, a proposed mission would peer into the nitrogen-dense atmosphere to determine the depth of the outer envelope of ice. .

A similar mission is proposed to study the oceans that should be on Triton, Neptune’s largest moon.

The panels also recommended an orbiter/lander mission to Saturn’s moon Enceladus to search for evidence of life during a two-year Earth mission.

Return example

The report recommends completing what the Perseverance rover does by returning rock samples from Mars. Examples of return missions from a comet and another from Pluto’s closest twin: Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt, are also highlighted.

A lunar rover, bound for the South Pole Aiken Basin, a huge impact crater on the far side of the Moon, is pictured collecting more than 200 pounds of material for Artemis astronauts to return to Earth for further study.

planetary defense

Scientists recommend giving preference to the Near-Earth Object Surveyor (NEO Surveyor), a space telescope dedicated to searching for space rocks that could threaten Earth. A “rapid response aerial reconnaissance mission” is also called to focus on near-Earth objects 50 to 100 meters in diameter. These are not only the most common, but also the ones with the highest probability of impact in the future.

The report titled Origins, Worlds and Life: A 10-Year Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032is available for free download from the National Academies website.

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