It's been forty years since our native Earthling boffins sent a spacecraft to inspect the mysterious outer worlds. 1977's Voyager 2 expedition saw the craft swing past both planets on its way towards the edge of the solar system and beyond in the furthest distance travelled in our entire history.
Despite a century of observing Neptune and the slightly longer legacy of Uranus watching, we know very little about these distant spheres. This is simply because they are extremely far away from us and the Sun, making them dimly lit and difficult to resolve. The second trip we make to these mostly uncharted sectors of space will undoubtedly increase our understanding of these worlds dramatically.
New plans detail four separate missions which include vehicles capable of orbiting for over ten years and sending probes into the atmosphere and gaseous surfaces. The major aim of the design plan is to discover the working geology of the frozen planets. They are called the ice giants because at their frigid temperatures, chemicals which would be gaseous on Earth freeze out to form ice and slushy liquids. Only the very light gasses would remain in that state.
Scientists want to know more about what both of the worlds are made of and why Neptune emits more heat than Uranus does, despite it receiving significantly less sunlight. Studies can also be made of the 27 moons orbiting Uranus and 14 moons of Neptune. Perhaps there are more out there, waiting to be found. The Voyager 2 craft only flew past both worlds for a single look, and likely missed many fascinating and important facts.
Other works being finalised by NASA include a new Mars rover and a trip to Europa, which is one of the larger Jovian moons. Robotics and computerised probes seem to be the preferred method of deep space exploration, as people do laboratory work in the close to home orbit of the ISS. It makes sense to protect individuals from the effects of long distance space travel and use instruments that can do the job instead. Clever stuff.
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