Cassini – Our Friend in Space – Our Wide Sky

Cassini – Our Friend in Space

September 14, 2017

At the end of Star Trek II: The wrath of Kahn, Spock, after saving the ship, is isolated and dying in a room filled with radiation. “I have been, and always shall be, your friend”, he says to Kirk.

We all cry.

His body is sent to the surface of a newly terraformed planet. In the next movie, The Search for Spock, we see the contamination this causes, bacteria on his torpedo coffin have evolved at fictional speed to be large wormy things.

At the end of this film the Enterprise is destroyed and we all cry again.

The spacecraft Cassini has been the eyes and ears of the explorer in all of us for 20 years. It has sent back images that are stunningly beautiful and science that is unexpected and exciting.

Cassini dies today. Having been our friend in space for so long.

I will certainly cry.

The death of a spacecraft is a surprisingly personal event, whether it is the Enterprise, or a real life spacecraft 1.2 billion km away. As humans we extend ourselves into space, into the future, with the robots we send to explore the solar system. They are the best of us and doing our work of exploration and discovery.

The spacecraft takes our focus, it’s easy to credit the machine, but it is the scientists, engineers and administrators who have spent their daily energy getting success from the Cassini mission. These are the real explorers. Their decisions, their scientific efforts and their capacity to see a long-term mission through to the end deserve the applause. Cassini has made discoveries because of the people who send it out there. And they will also be the saddest among us when the data from Cassini stops.

Cassini travelled past Venus and Jupiter on its way to Saturn. Doing science on the way, making discoveries before its primary mission. And for 13 years at Saturn Cassini has continued to work.

Saturn’s moon Titan was a mystery. Cassini send the Huygens probe to take a look and discovered subsurface oceans and methane lakes. 

The rings were always going to be spectacular, and their beauty and complexity from close up is an overload of spectacular.

Cassini discovered icy jets, deep oceans, energy and the ingredients for life on the moon Enceladus.  

Cassini was always going to plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn. These discoveries on Enceladus confirmed the rightness of the decision to not put at risk any world far from our own.

Cassini will continue to send us gifts of science right to the end. The last we hear from it will be long after it has been crushed, vaporised, dissolved into the atmosphere of Saturn. It will be working to the very end. Doing the work of humans in places we cannot go.

Not all the discoveries from Cassini have been made. There are gigaquads of data to sift through, analyse, learn from, processed into images.

Cassini’s legacy is science and art ongoing.

Farewell Cassini. You brought the beauty and science of Saturn into our hearts and our heads. We will honour your work by sharing the science and the art with everyone. You are the best of what humanity can achieve. Your mission is important, your ending is noble.

You have been, and always shall be, our friend.

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