New decadal survey recommends Uranus, Enceladus probes, plus a lander to look for signs of life on Mars

Authors recommend retaining focus on Mars Sample Return while doing new studies at Venus and “ocean worlds”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. A prior version misstated Victoria Hamilton’s first name.

A new 10-year survey of goals for future NASA planetary exploration missions released today recommends new spacecraft be sent to Uranus, Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus and to Mars.

The scientists recommend that NASA retain its Mars research but also develop “scientific exploration strategies in other areas of broad scientific importance, such as Venus and ocean worlds” — an apparent reference to NASA’s study of water in the solar system — “that have an increasing number of U.S. missions and international collaboration opportunities.”

Specific priorities for development from 2023 through 2032 include a sample return mission to the solar system’s largest asteroid, Ceres, and a robotic lunar rover to fetch a “substantial mass of high-value samples across a long traverse.”

The 780-page report by the congressionally mandated National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine identifies the planned Uranus Orbiter and Probe as the highest priority new “flagship” mission, with optimal launch times in 2031 and 2032.

The second “flagship” mission would be the Enceladus Orbilander, a spacecraft that from orbit would “analyze fresh plume material” rising from the moon’s icy surface, and then convert itself to a lander to make insitu measurements to look for potential signs of life.

As for Uranus, it’s “one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system,” according to the report. The Uranus Orbiter and Probe, UOP, would “address Uranus origin, interior, and atmosphere, magnetosphere and satellites and rings.”

Planetary scientist Victoria Hamilton, who chaired the survey committee’s Mars panel, told me by email that in addition to the recommended Mars Life Explorer, she sees the need for the Uranus and Enceladus missions.

“I’m excited by both — Uranus, because we have so little information about the ice giants and their systems, and Enceladus because it is another opportunity to search for life in a different kind of environment than a terrestrial planet like Mars,” Hamilton said.

Regarding Mars, the report urges NASA to prioritize the multispacecraft Mars Sample Return mission in which samples drilled by the Perseverance rover and left on Mars would be robotically collected and brought back to Earth by 2031.

The Mars Life Explorer is a lander that would touch down near ice deposits and search for “biosignatures of life” by measuring organic context, trace gases and isotopes to the required fidelity, according to the report. Hamilton said MLE will be “distinct from Mars Sample Return, which will happen first and is focused on the search for signs of ancient habitable environments and possible fossil life.”

The survey also includes a call for a new mission to understand asteroid threats to Earth, without naming a specific mission.

“The highest priority planetary defense demonstration mission should be a rapid-response, flyby reconnaissance mission targeted to a challenging NEO [Near Earth Object] of 50 to 100 meters in diameter — which is representative of the population of objects posing the highest probability of a destructive Earth impact,” the authors wrote. “Such a mission should assess the capabilities and limitations of flyby characterization methods to better prepare for a short-warning time NEO threat.”

Read the report: “Origins, Worlds, and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023 – 2032”

New decadal survey recommends Uranus, Enceladus probes, plus a lander to look for signs of life on Mars