2009, pp 745-761

Saturn's Exploration Beyond Cassini-Huygens

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Abstract

For its beautiful rings, active atmosphere and mysterious magnetic field, Saturn is a fascinating planet. It also holds some of the keys to understanding the formation of our Solar System and the evolution of giant planets in general. While the exploration by the Cassini-Huygens mission has led to great advances in our understanding of the planet and its moons, it has left us with puzzling questions: What is the bulk composition of the planet? Does it have a helium core? Is it enriched in noble gases like Jupiter? What powers and controls its gigantic storms? We have learned that we can measure an outer magnetic field that is filtered from its non-axisymmetric components, but what is Saturn's inner magnetic field? What are the rings made of and when were they formed?
These questions are crucial in several ways: a detailed comparison of the compositions of Jupiter and Saturn is necessary to understand processes at work during the formation of these two planets and of the Solar System: was the pro-tosolar disk progressively photoevaporated of its hydrogen and helium while forming its planets? Did Jupiter and Saturn form at the same time from cores of similar masses? Saturn is also a unique laboratory for studying the meteorology of a planet in which, in contrast to the Earth, the vapor of any condensing species (in particular water) is heavier than the surrounding air. A precise measurement of its magnetic field is needed to constrain dynamo theories and apply it to other contexts, from our Earth to extrasolar planets. Finally, the theory behind the existence of its rings is still to be confirmed, and has consequences for a variety of subjects from theories of accretion of grains to the study of physical mechanisms at work in protoplanetary systems.
All in all, this calls for the continued exploration of the second largest planet in our Solar System, with a variety of means including remote observations and space missions. Measurements of gravity and magnetic fields very close to the planet's cloud tops would be extremely valuable. Very high spatial resolution images of the rings would provide details on their structure and the material that form them. Last but not least, one or several probes sent into the atmosphere of the planet would provide the critical measurements that would allow a detailed comparison with the same measurements at Jupiter.