Dr. David H. Atkinson
Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Idaho
Senior Research Fellow, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
Data from atmospheric entry probe missions at the giant planets could uniquely discriminate between competing theories of solar system formation and the origin and evolution of the giant planets and their atmospheres, providing for valuable comparative studies of giant planets as well as providing a laboratory for studying the atmospheric chemistries, dynamics, and interiors of all the planets including Earth. Additionally, the giant planets also represent a valuable link to extrasolar planetary systems. To help constrain theories of the formation of the solar system and giant planets, a small highly focused shallow entry probe carrying a minimal science payload is needed to access and measure key atmospheric constituents that cannot be measured by remote sensing, and atmospheric structure and winds at a resolution that is significantly higher than could be achieved by remote sensing techniques.
The Galileo mission began the detailed study of the solar system’s two gas giants in 1995 by dropping an entry probe into the atmosphere of Jupiter and deploying an orbiter around Jupiter. In 2016-2017 the Juno mission will make measurements of Jupiter’s deep oxygen abundance, and gravitational and magnetic fields. In the same epoch, the Cassini orbiter is scheduled to pursue a set of Juno-like orbits to make comparable gravitational and magnetic field measurements of Saturn. A Saturn atmospheric entry probe would complete the quartet of missions needed for a comparative study of the two gas giants that will lead to improved models of solar system formation.