The outer region of the solar system may be the least explored, but scientists have managed to unravel several of its mysteries in recent weeks. On New Year’s Day, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons encountered the icy object Ultima Thule for the first time, shedding light on how it formed. Astronomers have also just discovered a previously unknown moon orbiting Neptune, which has been dubbed “Hippocamp”.
The gas/ice giant Uranus has long been a source of mystery to astronomers. In addition to presenting some thermal anomalies and a magnetic field that is off-center, the planet is also unique in that it is the only one in the Solar System to rotate on its side. With an axial tilt of 98°, the planet experiences radical seasons and a day-night cycle at the poles where a single day and night last 42 years each.
A NASA-led and NASA-sponsored study of potential future missions to the mysterious “ice giant” planets Uranus and Neptune has been released—the first in a series of mission studies NASA will conduct in support of the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey. The results of this and future studies will be used as the Decadal Survey deliberates on NASA’s planetary science priorities from 2022-2032. The study identifies the scientific questions an ice giant mission should address, and discusses various instruments, spacecraft, flight-paths and technologies that could be used.
The period known as the Scientific Revolution (ca. 16th to the 18th century) was a time of major scientific upheaval. In addition to advances made in mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences, several major discoveries were made in the field of astronomy. Because of this, our understanding of the size and structure of the Solar System was forever revolutionized.