Neptune

Neptune subtends the smallest disk size of the giant planets as seen from the Earth and thus presents considerable observational difficulties. However, Neptune has the most vigorous circulation of any of the giant planets and improvements in both ground-based and space-based astronomy should improve spatial resolution and spectral coverage allowing for more detailed understanding of the observed discrete "convective clouds'', dark spots, and the South Polar Wave (SPW). The current season on Neptune is just after summer solstice, and the planet will reach its autumnal equinox in around the year 2040. Hence, in the next few years, more and more of the northern hemisphere will become observable, which has never before been explored by modern detection systems. In the meantime it is also planned to address the D/H enrichment question with data from the AKARI space telescope and, after 2009, with the Herschel Space Observatory.

Concluding remarks

The field of giant planet study is truly multi-disciplined, drawing as it does on atmospheric physics, retrieval theory, IR spectroscopy, formation theory, and many other branches of physics. Understanding these worlds is of interest in its own right, and also in understanding how our own world came to be. While the Earth, and other terrestrial planets suffered a period of heavy bombardment by planetesimals early in its history, the inner Solar System has since been kept mostly clear of debris by the strong gravitational pull of Jupiter, which deflected such debris far out of the solar system and continues to protect the inner solar system from comets to this day. It is possible that life, and thus humans, may not have had a chance to evolve without the benign influence of these giant, distant worlds. The study of extrasolar systems has revealed that a significant proportion of them have giant planets orbiting close to the star, which would probably have the effect of jettisoning terrestrial planets into interstellar space, or into the star itself. Hence, it is of great interest to understand just how our solar system evolved into the configuration in which it is now found, and also to discern the likely formation distances of the planets prior to any migration. As for the giant planets themselves, their composition teaches us a great deal about the composition of material from which the solar system formed, and observations of the dynamics of the giant planet atmospheres provide intriguing tests of dynamical theories used in the world's weather-forecasting and climate prediction centers. Hence, while giant planet studies may seem to be pure "blue skies'' research, the implication of these studies has significance for both our understanding of how the Earth came to be, and also for our understanding of its atmospheric structure and evolution.

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