Uranus Pathfinder

Exploring the Origins and Evolution of Ice Giant Planets


Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun, the third largest and fourth most massive planet in the solar system. Uranus is an ice giant planet named after the Greek god Uranus. Sir William Herschel announced the discovery of Uranus on 13 March 1781. Uranus has a set of 27 natural satellites (moons), a system of rings, a highly asymmetric magnetic field, and orbits the Sun on its side with its poles pointing at the Sun during some parts of the uranian year. The names of the uranian natural satellites are taken from characters in the works of William Shakespeare (e.g., Titania, Oberon and Mab) and Alexander Pope (e.g., Ariel and Umbriel). The uranian system has only been visited once by a spacecraft, that was NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft on 24 January 1986.

What is Uranus Pathfinder?

Uranus Pathfinder was a mission concept that was submitted to the European Space Agency's M3 call for medium class missions. Unfortunately it was not successful despite being highly rated.

The Uranus Pathfinder concept was for an orbiter of Uranus, launching in 2021 and arriving at Uranus in the 2037 time frame. The mission would perform the first detailed study of an ice giant planetary system which would fill the gaps in our understanding of the formation of the solar system, and the physical processes in the interiors and atmospheres of ice giants.

A short presentation is available here. The Uranus Pathfinder M3 mission proposal was also written up for publication and has been submitted to a special issue of the Experimental Astronomy journal. You can download the submitted version of this paper here.

Uranus Pathfinder science graphic

Why an expensive space mission to Uranus?

All the major components of the solar system are being actively explored in situ by spacecraft apart from the ice giant planets Uranus and Neptune. Yet the ice giants are an important and essentially unknown part of the solar system, they have a unique place in planet formation, and are crucial in understanding exoplanetary systems

Who are the Team?

The Uranus Pathfinder project is led by Dr. Chris Arridge from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the UK and the whole project involves over 120 scientists from:

The Future of Ice Giant Exploration

The future of Ice Giant exploration is good. The NRC Planetary Decadal Survey 2013-2023 in the United States said that a Uranus mission offers “...outstanding scientific potential and a projected cost that is well matched to its anticipated science return..." and should be initiated in the next decade. There is a large European ice giant community, led by the Uranus Pathfinder consortium, to take advantage of such a Uranus flagship mission.

In Europe we are looking towards future mission opportunities within ESA and are also planning a future European Uranus workshop.

We welcome all feedback, comments and suggestions from the UK, European and world-wide community. Please register here to show your interest in this exciting mission.

21 April 2011
Chris Arridge
csa [at] mssl.ucl.ac.uk