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Scientists plan Uranus probe

Proposed by British scientists as a joint effort of NASA and the European Space Agency, the mission would offer the first close-up view of Uranus in 25 years.

By Paul SutherlandSkymania.com / January 7, 2011

This infrared image of Uranus taken by the Hubble telescope in 1997 shows three layers of the icy planet's atmosphere, which consists mostly of hydrogen with traces of methane. British scientists have proposed a mission investigating why Uranus gives off so little heat.

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British space scientists are leading plans to send a probe to explore giant ice planet Uranus. They have put forward a detailed proposal to the European Space Agency to launch a joint mission with NASA to the distant world, 1.8 billion miles from the sun.

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It would give scientists their first close-up views of Uranus since NASA’s Voyager 2 flew past and captured fleeting pictures 25 years ago.

The £400million mission is designed to go in orbit to study the rings around Uranus and answer questions such as why it gives off so little heat.

Uranus – first spotted by Sir William Herschel from Bath, England, in 1781 – also has the most powerful wind observed in the solar system, blowing at more than 500mph.

The planet is unusual because it is tilted right over on its side. Astronomers believe this was caused when Uranus was given a mighty whack by another world in a cosmic collision.

More than 160 scientists are backing the Uranus Pathfinder project which is led by Dr Chris Arridge, of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey.

He told Skymania in an exclusive interview: “We’ve only really scratched the surface of Uranus. It is very difficult to observe from Earth because any detail is smeared out.

“Since Voyager flew by we know the rings and atmosphere have changed. We need close-up measurements. Uranus is ripe for learning a lot from. It is so different among the planets.

“We tend to group Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as the gas giant planets. But Jupiter and Saturn are dominated by hydrogen and helium with small rocky cores.

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