Scientists looking for life beyond the Earth have targeted five moons circling Uranus.
Previously the Curiosity and Opportunity Mars rovers have detected promising signs beneath the Martian surface of Mars that could one day be confirmed as microscopic lifeforms, and the existence of oceans hidden beneath the icy shells of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede.
But now there comes a suggestion that life could have established a foothold even further out in the Solar System.
Planetary scientists believe the Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon, the largest moons of Ice Giant planet Uranus, could also have vast lakes of liquid water hidden beneath their surfaces.
Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, has proposed a method of detecting these hidden oceans and thereby identifying pockets of life elsewhere in the Solar System.
“The big question here is, ‘Where are habitable environments in the solar system?’” he says.
He adds that the discoveries of hidden oceans on Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus “make a lot of us wonder whether there are many Moons out there that, although they’re small, may still be warm.”
In a talk entitled “Searching for subsurface ocean on the Moons of Uranus using magnetic induction” at the American Geophysical Union’s 2020 virtual conference he described a technique for remotely detecting subsurface oceans by measuring minute changes in a planet’s magnetic field.
It may be some time before Professor Weiss can test his theory. While Uranus is the fourth most massive planet in our system, and the third largest in size, and has at least 27 moons, it’s not currently very high on NASA’s priority list.
Uranus is some 1,800,000,000 miles from the Sun, and apart from a brief fly-by from the Voyager 2 probe in the 1980s remains largely unexplored.
The next opportunity for a fast-track mission to the mysterious planet would be in the 2030s, when the planets line up neatly for a slingshot to the outer solar system.
Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said that the 2030 window would be “the right time to launch”, adding “we don’t want to miss this one.” But that may be too soon for NASA.
There’s another problem too. People still find the planet’s name too funny.
“I’m sorry I’m saying this,” says Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer and executive vice-president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington DC, “But I really do think that’s a legitimate problem we would face.”
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