So long, Cassini, so long

Beautiful image of Saturn-NASA

For 20 years, the Cassini spacecraft has been sending information to NASA about Saturn, its rings, and its many moons. Almost everything scientists know about Saturn have come from this highly successful mission. Two of the moons, Titan and Enceladus are primary targets in the search for life. “Are we alone?” is one of the big questions NASA attempts to answer. I’m not sure I’d find microbes company, but. . . Last Friday, Cassini crashed into Saturn, committing suicide, as programmed. Or was it crafticide? Cassini was dying and scientists deemed the planet a safer place for its fiery death.

It seems we have become complacent about NASA’s missions to discover the nature of our universe. Since our maiden efforts to launch into space, success is taken for granted, but it blows me away to think that we can send a spacecraft out hundreds of millions miles away and arrive on target. I can’t hit a dartboard within 8 feet. As a mathematician I can understand the calculations can be made, but the results depend on  accurate data. How all of the necessary data can be accumulated amazes me. Then there’s the transmission of the radio wave signals back to earth. If I drive far enough away from home I lose my favorite radio station. In fact, if not for the back and forth transmissions, they wouldn’t be able to make mid-course corrections. Setting initial conditions successfully seems improbable..

On the other hand,  check out a PBS special on one of these missions and discover how scientists hold their breath at every launch. I saw one on the two Voyagers and witnessed the love, the excitement, and the relief related to these two craft. They were slingshot into interstellar space—beyond our solar system— by planets at a time of ideal alignment. Voyager I carries a gold-plated disc carrying sounds of whale calls and Chuck Berry with visible directions on how to play it. The disc is expected to last 40,000 years.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but I thought I saw the most excitement on the faces of the female scientists. It must be wonderful to know your work contributes to understanding who, what,  and where we are.


Washington Post


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