Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Nuclear-powered mission to Neptune could answer questions about planetary formation

09.12.2004


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, Neptune’s 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."



Also, because Neptune is so cold, its structure is different from Jupiter and Saturn. A mission to investigate the origin and structure of Neptune -- expected to launch between 2016 and 2018 and arrive around 2035 -- will increase scientists’ understanding of diverse planetary formation in our solar system and in others, Steffes noted.

The mission team is also interested in exploring Neptune’s moons, especially Triton, which planetary scientists believe to be a Kuiper belt object. Such balls of ice are micro planets that can be up to 1,000 kilometers in diameter and are generally found in the outermost regions of our solar system. Based on studies to date, scientists believe Triton was not formed from Neptune materials, like most moons orbiting planets in our solar system. Instead, Triton is likely a Kuiper belt object that was accidentally pulled into Neptune’s orbit. "Triton was formed way out in space," Steffes said. "It is not even a close relative of Neptune. It’s an adopted child…. We believe Kuiper belt objects like Triton were key to the development of our solar system, so there’s a lot of interest in visiting Triton."

Though they face a number of technical challenges -- including entry probe design, and telecommunications and scientific instrument development -- the Neptune Vision Mission team has developed an initial plan. Team members, including Steffes, have been presenting it this fall at a variety of scientific meetings to encourage feedback from other experts. On Dec. 17, they will present it again at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Their final recommendations are due to NASA in July 2005.

The plan is based on the availability of nuclear-electric propulsion technology under development in NASA’s Project Prometheus. A traditional chemical rocket would launch the spacecraft out of Earth orbit. Then an electric propulsion system powered by a small nuclear fission reactor – a modified submarine-type technology -- would propel the spacecraft to its deep-space target. The propulsion system would generate thrust by expelling electrically charged particles called ions from its engines.

Because of the large scientific payload a nuclear-electric propelled spacecraft can carry and power, the Neptune mission holds great promise for scientific discovery, Steffes said.

The mission will employ electrical and optical sensors aboard the orbiter and three probes for sensing the nature of Neptune’s atmosphere, said Steffes, an expert in remote radio sensing of planetary atmospheres. Specifically, the mission will gather data on Neptune’s atmospheric elemental ratios relative to hydrogen and key isotopic ratios, as well as the planet’s gravity and magnetic fields. It will investigate global atmospheric circulation dynamics, meteorology and chemistry. On Triton, two landers will gather atmospheric and geochemical information near geysers on the surface.

The mission’s three entry probes will be dropped into Neptune’s atmosphere at three different latitudes – the equatorial zone, a mid-latitude and a polar region. Mission designers face the challenge of transmitting data from the probes through Neptune’s radiowave-absorbing atmosphere. Steffes’ lab at Georgia Tech has conducted extensive research and gained a thorough understanding of how to address this problem, he noted.

The mission team is still discussing how deep the probes should be deployed into Neptune’s atmosphere to get meaningful scientific data. "If we pick a low enough frequency of radio signals, we can go down to 500 to 1,000 Earth atmospheres, which is 7,500 pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI)," Steffes explained. "That pressure is similar to what a submarine experiences in the deep ocean."

However, that depth will probably not be required, according to the mission team’s atmospheric modelers, Steffes said. The probes will be able to obtain most information at only 100 Earth atmospheres, or 1,500 PSI.

Jane Sanders | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.gatech.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Quantum optics allows us to abandon expensive lasers in spectroscopy
22.11.2017 | Lomonosov Moscow State University

nachricht Nano-watch has steady hands
22.11.2017 | University of Vienna

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Nanoparticles help with malaria diagnosis – new rapid test in development

The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

Im Focus: Researchers Develop Data Bus for Quantum Computer

The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Corporate coworking as a driver of innovation

22.11.2017 | Business and Finance

PPPL scientists deliver new high-resolution diagnostic to national laser facility

22.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Quantum optics allows us to abandon expensive lasers in spectroscopy

22.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>