On September 15, after a 13-year sojourn, the Cassini Spacecraft will run out of fuel and plunge into the depths of Saturn’s atmosphere never to be heard from again.
Without question, Cassini is one of NASA’s greatest technological achievements. Its launch in 2004 heralded the most elaborate orbital expedition designed to explore a planetary system. The mission provided for more flybys of planetary bodies, and the closest, most comprehensive views ever conducted by NASA spacecrafts.
Carrying the European Space Station’s Huygens probe as a “research companion,” Cassini’s discoveries related to Saturn and Jupiter were breathtaking and stunning. Its orbital data revealed seven previously unknown moons orbiting within Saturn’s rings. These include Methone, Pallene, Polydeuces, Daphnis, Anthe and Aegaeon— and the oddly named S/2009 S1. Strange and ominous weather patterns resembling hurricanes were also observed as well as an intricate web of rivers, lakes and seas on Saturn.
Most intriguing however, is Enceladus, a religio loci (which loosely translated means an entity which embodies the spirit of a place). Enceladus is the sixth largest moon in orbit around Saturn; it is both somber and enigmatic. Its icy surface may be hiding a subterranean ocean teeming with extraterrestrial life (frequent flybys of the moon found conditions favorable for microbes). According to NASA scientists, “Enceladus has liquid water, organic carbon, nitrogen [in the form of ammonia], and an energy source. Aside from Earth, there is no other environment in the solar system where we can make all those claims.”
As we near Cassini’s grand finale, NASA pays homage to its spectacular voyage by chronicling its timelines, behind the scenes activities and accomplishments.
A poem by Pablo Neruda, which captures the imagination, beauty and solitude of space as well as the human quest for inner and outer discovery, aptly conveys our emotions about Cassini.
“…Suddenly I saw
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.”
Pablo Neruda (excerpt from poem, Poetry)