JIMO-NeptuneTriton A mission to investigate Neptune is expected to launch between 2016 and 2018 and arrive around 2035. This artist’s conception depicts a nuclear-electric-powered orbiter equipped with electrical and optical sensors. The mission would deploy three probes for sensing Neptune’s atmosphere and two landers for exploring Triton, Neptune’s largest moon (foreground). Image Courtesy of Boeing Satellite Systems
GPN-2000-001983 This computer generated montage shows Neptune as it would appear from a spacecraft approaching Triton, Neptunes largest moon at 2,706 kilometers (1,683 miles) in diameter. Image Courtesy of NASA
In 30 years, a nuclear-powered space exploration mission to Neptune and its moons may begin to reveal some of our solar system’s most elusive secrets about the formation of its planets -- and recently discovered ones that developed around other stars. This vision of the future is the focus of a 12-month planning study conducted by a diverse team of experts led by Boeing Satellite Systems and funded by NASA. It is one of 15 "Vision Mission" studies intended to develop concepts in the United States’ long-term space exploration plans. Neptune team member and radio scientist Professor Paul Steffes of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering calls the mission "the ultimate in deep space exploration."
NASA has flown extensive missions to Jupiter and Saturn, referred to as the "gas giants" because they are predominantly made up of hydrogen and helium. By 2012, these investigations will have yielded significant information on the chemical and physical properties of these planets. Less is known about Neptune and Uranus -- the "ice giants."
"Because they are farther out, Neptune and Uranus represent something that contains more of the original – to use a ’Carl Saganism’ – ’solar stuff’ or the nebula that condensed to form planets," Steffes said. "Neptune is a rawer planet. It is less influenced by near-sun materials, and it’s had fewer collisions with comets and asteroids. It’s more representative of the primordial solar system than Jupiter or Saturn."
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