Tribute to Cassini’s Saturn Mission


I was about eight years old when I first viewed the planet Saturn
through a real telescope. It is five decades later, and if you gave
me a pencil and paper (and some artistic skills), I could draw you
what I saw that night, so great was the impression it made on me.
I came to own my own telescopes, and Saturn was THE celestial
object I returned to, over and over again.

Perhaps it is my lifelong fondness, and fascination, with the
ringed planet that makes the end to NASA’s Cassini mission so
bittersweet. As it plunged into the upper atmosphere of Saturn,
the astonishingly successful spacecraft transmitted some of the
most important data (but sadly no more pictures) of its 13-year
exploration of the most complex planetary environment in our
Solar System. Cassini was programmed to keep its main antenna
pointed at Earth, and keep sending telemetry, until it disintegrated
from atmospheric friction and its ashes, quite literally, were
scattered across the planet.

I remember the night Cassini entered orbit, I went outside and stared up at Saturn and thought, “we - humankind - have an emissary there.” As breathtaking pictures of the planet, its rings and moons were transmitted back to Earth, I occasionally entertained the amusing notion of riding Cassini - sorta Slim Pickens style - as it orbited around Saturn and witnessing first hand the amazing vistas it saw.

I worry that Cassini’s end may also signal the end of the ambitious robotic missions to the outer planets. The sociopathic bozo we have as president seems utterly devoid of any cosmic curiosity and pursues a rabidly anti-science political agenda. His nominee to head NASA isn’t qualified to be a janitor at the space agency, much less its administrator. It is hard to see how a challenging mission to Europa to drill down to its ice-covered ocean, or a flying reconnaissance of Titan - a world of methane rain, rivers and lakes that is a kind of ultra-cold Earth - would ever get approved and funded by an idiot who stares at a partially eclipsed sun without eye protection.

But, thanks to the vision of others, there was still Cassini. NASA has an excellent web site devoted to what it calls “The Grand Finale” - you can see it here. There is a short video on the page that I definitely recommend watching; like so many things NASA does, it is incredibly well done.

So… RIP Cassini. You took the human presence, curiosity and intelligence to one of the most fantastic places we know of in the cosmos, and made it real for us.

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Cassini transmitted its final images to Earth about eight hours before its final demise; telemetry - mostly about atmospheric composition - continued until its disintegration above Saturn. I checked NASA's mission website for the last batch of photos sent and selected a set of three (taken through red, blue and green filters) that were captured on the final orbit to merge into a color picture of the sunlit rings and the edge of the planet in shadow. This is close to what the human eye would see if you were perched on the spacecraft. I'll call this my Slim Pickens shot. RIP Cassini.