Unwrapping Uranus and its icy secrets: What NASA would learn from a mission to a wild world

Mike Sori, Purdue University

Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, orbits in the outer solar system, about two billion miles (3.2 billion kilometers) from Earth. It is an enormous world – quadruple the diameter of Earth, with 15 times the mass and 63 times the volume.

Unvisited by spacecraft for more than 35 years, Uranus inhabits one of the least explored regions of our solar system. Although scientists have learned some things about it from telescopic observations and theoretical work since the Voyager 2 flyby in 1986, the planet remains an enigma.

It’s easy to divide the solar system into two large groups: an inner zone with four rocky planets and an outer zone with four giant planets. But nature is, as usual, more complicated. Uranus and Neptune, the eighth planet from the Sun, are vastly different from the others. Both are ice giants, composed largely of compounds such as water, ice, ammonia and methane; they are places where the average temperature is minus 320 to minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 212 Celsius).

Through recent discoveries of exoplanets – worlds outside our solar system that are trillions of miles away – astronomers have learned that ice giants are common throughout the galaxy. They challenge our understanding of planetary formation and evolution. Uranus, comparatively close to us, is our cornerstone for learning about them.

All about Uranus, the unconventional planet.

A new mission

Many in the space community – like me – are urging NASA to launch a robotic spacecraft to explore Uranus. Indeed, the 2023 decadal survey of planetary scientists ranked such a journey as the single highest priority for a new NASA flagship mission.

This time, the spacecraft would not simply fly by Uranus on its way somewhere else, as Voyager 2 did. Instead, the probe would spend years orbiting and studying the planet, its 27 moons and its 13 rings.

You may wonder, why send a spacecraft to Uranus and not Neptune. It’s a matter of orbital architecture. Because of the positions of both planets over the next two decades, a spacecraft from Earth will have an easier trajectory to follow to reach Uranus than Neptune. Launched at the right time, the orbiter would arrive at Uranus in about 12 years.

Here are just a few of the basic questions a Uranus orbiter would help answer: What, exactly, is Uranus made of? Why is Uranus tilted on its side, with its poles pointed almost directly toward the Sun during summer – which is different from all the other planets in the solar system? What is generating Uranus’ strange magnetic field, shaped differently than Earth’s and misaligned with the direction the planet spins? How does atmospheric circulation work on an ice giant? What do the answers to all these questions tell us about how ice giants form?

Notwithstanding the progress scientists have made on these and other questions since the Voyager 2 flyby, there’s no substitute for direct, close-up and repeated observations from an orbiting spacecraft.

An illustration of the blue-green planet Uranus, as seen from the cratered surface of one of its moons.
An artist’s concept of Uranus, as seen from the surface of Ariel, one of its moons. Mark Garlick/Science Photo Laboratory via Getty Images

The rings and those moons

The rings around Uranus, probably made of dirty ice, are thinner and darker than those around Saturn. A Uranus orbiter would look for “ripples” in them, akin to waves on a lake. Finding them would let scientists use the rings as a giant seismometer to help us learn about the interior of Uranus, one of its great secrets.

The moons, mostly named after literary characters from the writings of Shakespeare and Pope, are primarily made of frozen mixes of ice and rock. Five of the moons are particularly compelling. Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon are all big enough to be spherical and treated as miniature worlds in their own right.

During its flyby, Voyager 2 took low-resolution images of the moons’ southern hemispheres. (Their northern hemispheres, still unseen, remain one of the major unexplored frontiers of our solar system.) Those images include photos of ice volcanoes on Ariel – a tantalizing hint of past geological and tectonic activity and, possibly, subsurface water.

A black and white photo of a pockmarked moon of Uranus.
A cratered world of varied landscapes, Miranda is a Uranus moon that might be an ocean world. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The possibility of oceans and life

Which leads to one of the most exciting parts of the mission: Many planetary scientists theorize that Ariel, and perhaps most or all of the other five moons, may be an ocean world harboring large, underground bodies of liquid water miles beneath the solid, icy surface. Finding out whether any of the moons have oceans is one of the major goals of the mission.

This is one reason why an orbiter would probably carry a magnetometer – to detect the electromagnetic interactions of an underground ocean as one of its moons travels through Uranus’ magnetic field. Instruments to measure the moons’ gravitational fields and cameras to study their surface geology would help, too.

Liquid water is an essential requirement for life as we know it. If oceans are detected, scientists will then want to look for other ingredients for life on the moons – such as energy, nutrients and organic matter.

Not a done deal

No launch date has been set for the mission, and there’s not yet an official go-ahead from NASA on its funding. The cost would probably be more than a billion dollars.

One critical factor to consider: The cosmos operates on its own timetable, and those spacecraft trajectories to Uranus will change over the years as the planets move along their orbits. Ideally, NASA would launch a mission in 2031 or 2032 to maximize trajectory convenience and minimize travel time. That time span is less than it may seem; it takes years of planning – and years more of constructing the spacecraft – to be ready for launch. That’s why the time is now to start the process and fund a mission to this fascinating world.The Conversation

Mike Sori, Assistant Professor of Planetary Science, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Gift Idea: HEROQUEST, One of the ABSOLUTE Best Board Games of All Time, is on Sale!

If you’re into fantasy tabletop board games or are looking for a game for someone who’s a fan of the genre, Amazon currently has the HeroQuest Game System Tabletop Board Game for sale! Need to be convinced? Head over the product page and read the reviews.

In the HeroQuest dungeon crawl board game, heroes work together to complete epic quests, find treasures and defeat the forces of evil. This semi-cooperative board game has one player taking on the role of Zargon, the Game Master, while 4 mythical heroes–Barbarian, Dwarf, Elf, and Wizard–team up in their quest for adventure in a maze of monsters and eerie dark dungeons. Players can immerse themselves in the fantasy with the stunning artwork, and 65+ detailed miniatures. The game comes with 14 quests, and has limitless replayability because players can also build their own quests and create their own stories. Gather friends together for an exciting night of tabletop gameplay in an epic battle of good and evil. The game is for 2-5 players, ages 14 and up. Avalon Hill and all related trademarks and logos are trademarks of Hasbro, Inc.

And for those who want to expand the game further, you can get one or many of its many expansions too!

HeroQuest Game System Tabletop Board Game$134.99 $94.36

Please note that Geeks are Sexy might get a small commission from qualifying purchases done through our posts (As an Amazon associate or a member of other affiliate programs. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

Your car might be watching you to keep you safe − at the expense of your privacy

Many modern cars watch occupants – a plus for safety but not so much for privacy. Courtesy LG

M. Hadi Amini, Florida International University

Depending on which late-model vehicle you own, your car might be watching you – literally and figuratively – as you drive down the road. It’s watching you with cameras that monitor the cabin and track where you’re looking, and with sensors that track your speed, lane position and rate of acceleration.

Your car uses this data to make your ride safe, comfortable and convenient. For example, the cameras can tell when you’ve been distracted and need to bring your attention back to the road. They can also identify when you are speeding by verifying the speed limit from your GPS position or traffic signs along the road and warn you to slow down. Some carmakers are also beginning to incorporate similar features for convenience, such as unlocking your car by scanning your face or fingerprint. Your car may also transmit some of this data to the manufacturer’s data centers, where the company uses it to improve your driving experience or provide you with personalized services.

In addition to providing these benefits, this data collection is a potential privacy nightmare. The information can reveal your identity, your habits when you’re in your car, how safely you drive, where you’ve been and where you regularly go. A report by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit technology research and advocacy organization, found that carmakers’ privacy policies are exceedingly lax. The study identified cars as the “worst category of products for privacy that we have ever reviewed.” U.S. Sen. Ed Markey wrote a letter to U.S. automakers on Nov. 30, 2023, asking a lengthy set of questions about their data practices.

Cars collect a lot of information about drivers and passengers.

Today’s smart cars present drivers with a trade-off between convenience and privacy, assuming drivers have the option of improving the data privacy of their cars. As a computer scientist who studies cybersecurity and resilience in transportation, I see several technological routes to getting the best of both worlds: cars that make use of this collected data while also preserving users’ privacy.

Driver data

Today’s cars use a wide range of sensors to understand the environment, analyze the data and ensure the safety of passengers. For instance, cars are equipped with sensors that measure brake pedal position, vehicle speed, driver’s movements, surrounding vehicles and even traffic lights. The collected data is transmitted to the car’s electric control units, the computers that operate the car’s many systems.

There are two types of sensors that continuously monitor and predict a driver’s drowsiness. The first is vehicle status monitoring sensors such as lane detection and steering wheel position tracking. This data is not directly related to a specific person and can be considered not personally identifiable information unless it is correlated with other data that identifies the driver.

The second type of sensors tracks drivers themselves. This category includes things like cameras to track the driver’s eye movements to predict fatigue. This second group of sensors is directly related to the driver’s privacy because they collect personally identifiable information, such as the driver’s face.

Protecting privacy

There is a trade-off between the quality of the driving experience and the privacy of drivers, depending on the level of services and features. Some drivers may prefer to share their biometric data to facilitate accessing a car’s functions and automating a major part of their driving experience. Others may prefer to manually control the car’s systems, sharing less personally identifiable information or none at all.

At first glance, it seems the trade-off of privacy and driver comfort cannot be avoided. Car manufacturers tend to take measures to protect drivers’ data against data thieves, but they collect a lot of data themselves. And as the Mozilla Foundation report showed, most car companies reserve the right to sell your data. Researchers are working on developing data analytics tools that better protect privacy and make progress on eliminating the trade-off.

For instance, over the past seven years, the concept of federated machine learning has attracted attention because it allows algorithms to learn from the data on your local device without copying the data to a central server. For instance, Google’s Gboard keyboard benefits from federated learning to better guess the next word you are likely to type without sharing your private data with a server.

Federated learning is a technique for training AI models that keeps people’s data private.

Research led by Ervin Moore, a Ph.D. student at Florida International University’s Sustainability, Optimization, and Learning for InterDependent Networks laboratory, and published in IEEE Internet of Things Journal explored the idea of using blockchain-based federated machine learning to improve the privacy and security of users and their sensitive data. The technique could be used to protect drivers’ data. There are other techniques to preserve privacy as well, such as location obfuscation, which alters the user’s location data to prevent their location from being revealed.

While there is still a trade-off between user privacy and quality of service, privacy-preserving data analytics techniques could pave the way for using data without leaking drivers’ and passengers’ personally identifiable information. This way, drivers could benefit from a wide range of modern cars’ services and features without paying the high cost of lost privacy.The Conversation

M. Hadi Amini, Assistant Professor of Computing and Information Sciences, Florida International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Today’s Hottest Deals: Krampus: The Naughty Cut (4K Collector’s Edition), ASUS ROG Strix 49” Curved Gaming Monitor, Starfield (Xbox Series X), Anker Power Stations, and MORE!

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