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Despite the lack of another Flagship-class mission such as Cassini–Huygens, prospects for the future exploration of Saturn are nevertheless encouraging. Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are exploring the possibilities of focused interplanetary missions (1) to drop one or more in situ atmospheric entry probes into Saturn and (2) to explore the satellites Titan and Enceladus, which would provide opportunities for both in situ investigations of Saturn’s magnetosphere and detailed remote-sensing observations of Saturn’s atmosphere. Additionally, a new generation of powerful Earth-based and near-Earth telescopes with advanced instrumentation spanning the ultraviolet to the far-infrared promise to provide systematic observations of Saturn’s seasonally changing composition and thermal structure, cloud structures and wind fields. Finally, new advances in amateur telescopic observations brought on largely by the availability of low-cost, powerful computers, low-noise, large-format cameras, and attendant sophisticated software promise to provide regular, longterm observations of Saturn in remarkable detail.
Saturn formed beyond the snow line in the primordial solar nebula, and that made it possible for it to accrete a large mass. Disk instability and core accretion models have been proposed for Saturn’s formation, but core accretion is favored on the basis of its volatile abundances, internal structure, hydrodynamic models, chemical characteristics of protoplanetary disk, etc. The observed frequency, properties, and models of exoplanets provide additional supporting evidence for core accretion. The heavy elements with mass greater than 4He make up the core of Saturn, but are presently poorly constrained, except for carbon. The C/H ratio is super-solar, and twice that in Jupiter. The enrichment of carbon and other heavy elements in Saturn and Jupiter requires special delivery mechanisms for volatiles to these planets. In this chapter we will review our current understanding of the origin and evolution of Saturn and its atmosphere, using a multi-faceted approach that combines diverse sets of observations on volatile composition and abundances, relevant properties of the moons and rings, comparison with the other gas giant planet, Jupiter, and analogies to the extrasolar giant planets, as well as pertinent theoretical models.
The science of extra-solar planets is one of the most rapidly changing areas of astrophysics and since 1995 the number of planets known has increased by almost two orders of magnitude. A combination of ground-based surveys and dedicated space missions has resulted in 560-plus planets being detected, and over 1200 that await confirmation. NASA's Kepler mission has opened up the possibility of discovering Earth-like planets in the habitable zone around some of the 100,000 stars it is surveying during its 3 to 4-year lifetime. The new ESA's Gaia mission is expected to discover thousands of new planets around stars within 200 parsecs of the Sun. The key challenge now is moving on from discovery, important though that remains, to characterisation: what are these planets actually like, and why are they as they are?
In the past ten years, we have learned how to obtain the first spectra of exoplanets using transit transmission and emission spectroscopy. With the high stability of Spitzer, Hubble, and large ground-based telescopes the spectra of bright close-in massive planets can be obtained and species like water vapour, methane, carbon monoxide and dioxide have been detected. With transit science came the first tangible remote sensing of these planetary bodies and so one can start to extrapolate from what has been learnt from Solar System probes to what one might plan to learn about their faraway siblings. As we learn more about the atmospheres, surfaces and near-surfaces of these remote bodies, we will begin to build up a clearer picture of their construction, history and suitability for life.
The Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory, EChO, will be the first dedicated mission to investigate the physics and chemistry of Exoplanetary Atmospheres. By characterising spectroscopically more bodies in different environments we will take detailed planetology out of the Solar System and into the Galaxy as a whole.
EChO has now been selected by the European Space Agency to be assessed as one of four M3 mission candidates.
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