What would it be like to fall through the clouds of the ice giants in our solar system, Uranus or Neptune? Well, no one really knows, but we may be close to finding out.
We have landed, collided, or landed on the clouds of all the planets in the solar system except two: Uranus and Neptune. The furthest planets from the sun, these worlds are still shrouded in a certain degree of mystery. But this may change soon. This is because both NASA, in 2023-2032 Decadal Planetary Science SurveyAnd the European Space Agency, in Journey 2050 programmeThey stated that visiting these exoplanets is a top priority.
To that end, simulated probes can help us understand what descending into the clouds of these planets might entail.
As such, scientists recently Investigation simulation Down into the atmosphere of the two planets. Tests were performed on hypersonic plasma T6 Chaser Tunnel At the University of Oxford and the University of Stuttgart Plasma wind tunnels for high heat flux diagnostic kit.
Related: Uranus up close: What NASA’s proposed ‘ice giant’ mission can teach us
The T6 Stalker Tunnel is the fastest wind tunnel in Europe, having reached a test speed of 20 kilometers per second (12.4 miles per second). These tests simulated what a probe descending into the atmosphere of Uranus or Neptune would need to encounter, including heat flows. And thermal heating. Although the atmosphere of these giant icy planets is extremely cold, the probe will heat up significantly upon entering the atmosphere. The rate of this heating is Orders of magnitude higher Than anything the European Space Agency, for example, has had to deal with so far.
Tests have already been able to simulate speeds of 19 kilometers per second (11.8 miles per second), but further tests will simulate actual entry rates of 24 kilometers per second (14.9 miles per second). This speed is equivalent to the speed required for a probe vehicle orbiting the ice giants.
“To begin designing such a system, we first need to adapt existing European testing facilities in order to reproduce the atmospheric compositions and velocities involved,” Louis Walbot, an atmospheric thermodynamics engineer at ESA, said in a statement.
Unlike their bigger siblings Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus and Neptune contain a notable amount of heavier elements, along with significant levels of methane, the latter of which turns their clouds blue. These may also harbor planets Oceans of liquid within their atmospheres and the experience of diamond rain.
However, Uranus and Neptune are the two least understood planets in our solar system, so any probe sent there would give us tremendous information about the nature of the worlds. In addition, learning about these ice giants may also help us better understand planetary system formation.
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