Friday, 5 April 2013

Astronomy & Geophysics Article: Future Exploration of the Outer Solar System

Cover of the April 2013 issue of A&G,
Credit:  Oxford Journals

The Oxford Journals magazine Astronomy and Geophysics has just published my report on a meeting hosted by Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society back in December  (Fletcher, 2013, Future Exploration of the Outer Solar System, Astronomy & Geophysics 2013 54: 2.14-2.20).   The article goes into much more detail, but here I've posted a similar report that I delivered to NASA's Outer Planets Assessment Group back in January 2013.  The Royal Astronomical Society has been around since 1831, and is chartered to promote astronomy, geophysics and solar system science here in the UK, with over 3000 members and premises in Burlington House, Piccadilly.  Each month they sponsor one-day discussion meetings on topics of interest to the community.  These are mainly aimed at raising awareness of issues within the UK community, but every so often we have meetings that encourage more international participation, such as this one. 

Chris Arridge and I proposed and ran a meeting on future exploration of the outer planets with the following aims:  (1) to continue the momentum of our studies for an ESA-led mission to an ice giant; (2) to review and discuss the high priority objectives of future missions and telescopic observations of the outer solar system; and (3) to bring together scientists and engineers involved in preparation for ESA’s JUICE mission.  After a busy couple of years with proposals for both ESA’s M3 mission (Marco-Polo-R and EChO currently the planetary missions in competition) and L mission (JUICE selected last May), it was hoped that this would be a rather optimistic and hopeful end to 2012.  What emerged from the meeting, from my perspective, was that there’s no shortage of great ideas, achievable concepts and tantalising destinations for the outer planets community. 

We were fortunate to have the funding to invite two overseas speakers to provide keynote talks, and asked Mark Hofstadter to provide us with an update on the prospects of a US-led mission to an ice giant, and Olivier Mousis from Toulouse to discuss giant planet origins and the French intentions for future ESA proposals.  Both of these presentations were heavily biased towards Uranus, with good reason.  As many of you will be aware, in 2010 Chris Arridge led a team of European and American scientists in a bid for ESA’s M3-class mission slot, with a concept called Uranus Pathfinder. The aim was to show ESA that an ice giant mission captured all of the essential elements of the Cosmic Vision, and that Europe could come up with viable strategies to achieve these aims.

Mark Hofstadter reviewed the outcome of the US decadal and budgetary cuts, starting with a Dickens quote – the best of times and the worst of times, the best because a Uranus flagship was recognised as high priority, and the worst because it doesn’t look likely any time soon.  He discussed the prospects of Discovery and New Frontiers Uranus missions, particularly with European involvement possibly in the form of bilateral agreements and instrument builds.  Chris Arridge reviewed the Uranus Pathfinder concept, and our intentions to rework the design for the next L class round. Olivier Mousis reviewed theories for the origins of Uranus and its satellite system, providing observational tests to be addressed by in situ exploration (both entry probes and INMS sampling from an orbiter).  In particular, we talked about a revival of a Saturn entry probe mission for the next ESA M-class call with a single probe.  Although this would target Saturn, this would be equally beneficial to the Uranus Pathfinder community, who saw an entry probe as a vital addition to address our questions about the origins of the ice giants.   Underpinning all of this, we had a presentation by Richard Ambrosi from the University of Leicester, part of a European consortium working towards efficient power conversion technologies for the decay of Americium-241.  Although the power density is only a quarter that of plutonium-238, its being seen as a viable alternative, and the consortium hopes to have a full-scale flight system in the near future.

The rest of the day was filled with review talks of key science drivers for future exploration, including presentations on auroral measurements from Juno and JWST from Tom Stallard of the University of Leicester; a review of comparative ring science from Carl Murray of QMUL; descriptions of future Titan exploration, such as TANDEM, TSSM, TiME and other ideas from Mark Leese of the Open University; and mass spectrometry concepts for future Titan landers, gas giant entry probes and penetrators for Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus from Andrew Morse of the Open University. 

Finally, we had two presentations reviewing the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, which has been top of the European planetary science community’s agenda for the past twelve months.  Michele Dougherty described the science case, with which I’m sure you’re all familiar, and Matthew Stuttard from Astrium described a high level overview of the company’s studies for the definition phase. Instrument proposals were all submitted in mid-October during the DPS, and then selected back in February by ESA.  The dust should hopefully settle over all of this in the next couple of months, and the selected PI teams can begin to move forward with the JUICE mission development. 

In summary, we had a successful meeting reviewing the scientific questions and key destinations for future exploration, and discussions about collaborations on future ESA M and L-class calls for ice giant missions and in situ exploration.  Here's a link to the full text of the A&G article:

Disclaimer:  Oxford Journals allow the author to include these links on their personal websites, or those of their host institutions, providing free access to the offprint to interested readers irrespective of whether you're a subscriber to A&G.  The idea is that Oxford Journals can then track the readership of these articles via their own website.

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