Where Should NASA Travel To In The Years to Come?

Source/Credit: Voyager 2 image of Neptune and Triton from NASA/JPL-Caltech/Björn Jónsson.

In a recent posting, the non-profit Planetary Society is recommending NASA consider a return to Neptune and its moon Triton, noting that such a mission was part of the plan in the last Decadal Survey in 2010 along with trips to Mars and Europa (both of which are underway). NASA was aiming for Uranus or Neptune, but the Planetary Society stated a preference for Neptune.

The last and only visit to Neptune back in 1989 with NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft providing our first close view of the planet. The Voyager 2 mission also led to the discovery of six new moons as well as four rings around the planet. Moreover, the mission detected what may be underground oceans on the moon Triton.

The Planetary Society believes Triton, most likely a captured object from the Kuiper Belt, should be the deciding factor for visiting Neptune rather than Uranus. A 2019 paper, “The NASA Roadmap to Ocean Worlds,” highlights the value of visiting Triton to learn more about its potential oceans:

Triton is deemed the highest priority target to address as part of an Ocean Worlds Program. This priority is given based on the extraordinary hints of activity shown by the Voyager spacecraft (e.g., plume activity; smooth, walled plains units; the cantaloupe terrain suggestive of convection)…and the potential for ocean-driven activity given by Cassini results at Enceladus. Although the source of energy for Triton’s activity remains unclear, all active bodies in the Solar System are driven by endogenic heat sources, and Triton’s activity coupled with the young surface age makes investigation of an endogenic source important. Further, many Triton mission architectures would simultaneously address Ice Giant goals on which high priority was placed in the Visions and Voyages Decadal Survey. Finally, as Triton likely represents a captured Kuiper Belt object (KBO), some types of comparative planetology with KBOs could also be addressed in a Triton mission. Before the next Decadal Survey, a mission study should be performed that would address Triton as a potential ocean world; such a study could be part of a larger Neptune orbiter mission. The Decadal Survey should place high priority on Triton as a target in the Ocean Worlds Program.

The next Decadal Survey is being prepared now and among the papers submitted for consideration is this one highlighted by the Planetary Society – “Neptune and Triton: A Flagship for Everyone.” This paper states that a large strategic mission, called a “Flagship Mission,” to Neptune and Triton would have may benefits:

A Flagship Mission to Neptune and Triton would provide many firsts, an orbiter and atmospheric probe would not only be feasible on a Flagship budget, but achievable given the current state of the technology required by such a venture. This bold mission of exploration would be the first to orbit an ice giant to study the planet, its rings, small satellites, space environment, and the planetsized moon, Triton, itself a captured dwarf planet from the Kuiper Belt and a geophysically reactivated twin of Pluto. Broadly, the mission would address the following questions: How do the interiors and atmospheres of ice giant (exo)planets form and evolve? What causes Neptune’s strange magnetic field, and how do its magnetosphere and aurora work? What are the origins of and connections between Neptune’s rings, arcs, and small moons? Is Triton an ocean world? What causes its plumes? What is the nature of its atmosphere? and how can Triton’s geophysics and composition expand our knowledge of dwarf planets like Pluto?

It sounds like a strong argument to me. I imagine the other 500 or so papers submitted as part of the upcoming Decadal Survey have some other great scientific missions in mind as well. I look forward to seeing the final recommendations to NASA.