"I have published a theory that radiation belt particles at Saturn may provide chemical energy to drive the ice volcanoes of the Saturn moon Enceladus, and I wonder if there might also be such volcanoes from similar moon irradiation processes at Uranus," said Cooper.
If Uranus could reveal so much, providing us with a huge piece of the solar system puzzle, why haven't we already sent a probe?
Mark Hofstadter, planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and U.S.-lead investigator for Uranus Pathfinder, points out that before now the logistics of such a mission have been considered too expensive when considering the science that can be gathered.
"Being farther away makes it more difficult (read more expensive) to get there than to, say, Jupiter or Saturn," Hofstadter said. It's for this reason that missions to the inner gas giants have been preferred. But, in light of technological advancements, the cost of sending a robotic mission to Uranus now is more manageable.
In addition, the relative scientific importance of Uranus has been on the rise.
"This is due to past missions answering some questions at Jupiter and Saturn, but just as importantly, recent research - both theoretical and observational - has made us appreciate that the Ice Giants are very important if we are to understand the formation and evolution of planets both in our solar system as well as around other stars," he said.
A Solar System Gold Mine
As Uranus is 1.8 billion miles from the sun - or 19 times the distance from the Earth to the sun - solar panels would be useless to power the Uranus Pathfinder spacecraft, so like the Cassini Equinox mission currently orbiting Saturn, it would need a nuclear power source.
Also, like Voyager 2 that came before it, the mission would most likely use a series of gravitational assists (or "sling shots") by other planets in the solar system to propel Uranus Pathfinder to the outer solar system. Depending on the size of the spacecraft, the mission could take anywhere between 8 to 15 years to reach its destination, says Hofstadter. The team hopes to see Uranus Pathfinder launch in 2021.
"The only way to see how the solar system works in different places is to go there, or for a planet this far away, send an unmanned probe," Arridge concludes. "Uranus sits in quite a different position in the solar system, it's far from the sun, it doesn't appear to give off much heat, it orbits the sun on its side, it appears to have a very different magnetic field, and its ring system is unique."
"Uranus is a gold mine to help us understand the planets."
Image (top): True (left) and false (right)-color images of Uranus as taken by Voyager 2 on Jan. 27, 1986. The false color image shows the structure of the planet's atmosphere around Uranus' polar region.