I’ve been thinking a lot today about the Cassini probe, and its imminent demise, early tomorrow morning (EDT) as it undertakes a planned suicide dive into the atmosphere of Saturn.
My friend Richard Easther (who is an actual cosmologist rather than an interested dabbler like me) has written a lovely eulogy for the mission, “Set the Controls for the Heart of Saturn,” which in addition to being both informed and evocative naturally gets big bonus points for the Pink Floyd reference. He articulates many of the emotions I’m feeling: the way this mission evokes a sense of wonder and takes us both back to the days when we were adolescents poring over the latest images in books and magazines from Voyager.
The many retrospectives of Cassini’s discoveries over the last week have also made me realize something else. The unmanned space exploration program undertaken mainly by NASA/JPL with some help from the ESA and the occasional Russian rocket should be understood categorically as the defining technological achievement of humanity.
Instead, we obsess about cars with backseat multimedia child pacification systems. We focus on stories about scary clowns that prey on the most vulnerable among us (I was talking about the Stephen King movie. What did you think I was referring to?) We look to driverless cars and the self-phone (now you can get one for $1000! Thanks Papa Apple!) as the crowning achievements of our age. If we condescend to look up at all we might point to the moon landings. OMG! How awesome (we were then)!
But the complexity of the interplanetary exploration program alone, not to mention the sheer quantity of scientific data that it has generated beggars any of those accomplishments. Just as important, the steady stream of discoveries that mere mortals can understand without the aid of a physics doctorate has been staggering. We have abundant evidence of what a very, very strange place is even our local neck of the cosmic woods. Just think of a few of the things Cassini witnessed and achieved while on its mission.
It flew over a giant hexagonal hurricane that forms Saturn’s north pole (see above). Let’s repeat that again, shall we? A hexagonal storm. What the fuck?
It safely landed a probe, for the first time, on a moon other than our own, one with a dense methane atmosphere and lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, no less.
It flew through geysers of salt water spewed into space from oceans beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Liquid water people! Not just speculated about, or theorized, but flown through, like sending your Mini through an interplanetary car wash.
It took images of a moon (Daphnis) that makes waves in Saturn’s rings as it passes.
It made orbit after orbit through Saturn’s ring plane. And yeah, there seems to be a lot of blank space there, but that ring plane is, when all is said and done, a big mass of whirling rock and dust, the tiniest particle of which is enough to destroy the probe. Plus, Cassini insisted on discovering more and more “moonlets” taking up valuable real estate in the ring neighbourhood.
Perhaps the most convincing reason for seeing these missions as our crowning achievement is that they are virtually the one and only piece of evidence that we as a species can think beyond our next pumpkin spice latte. Here in the supposedly mightiest nation on earth, for example, our government can’t even pass a full budget (it has in fact only done so four times between 1977 and 2015 (thanks Wikipedia! I actually had no idea it was as bad as that)). And forget about actually dealing with any major problem (infrastructure, climate change, rise of fascism). The US is of course hardly alone here, but it is the poster child for the standard solution to well, basically everything, in advanced democracies: kick the can down the road.
Meanwhile, objects not a whole lot bigger than the proverbial tin cans have been launched into space with timelines for success measured in decades. Cassini, for example was first launched in 1997. It didn’t even reach Saturn until 2004. The New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, famously flew by Pluto (some of you may have looked up from your phones long enough to notice this) in 2015 and is still active, proceeding with the next part of its mission to try and investigate one or more Kuiper belt objects.
Inevitably, at this point, some armchair ethicist will hoik a stream of tobacco juice and complain about the cost of these missions and how much better it would have been to spend this money back here on Earth. No, it really wouldn’t. You give money to people on Earth and most of them do really stupid things with it like buy houses with cathedral ceilings or new rims for their Lexus. Or buy a $1000 phone. The total cost for Cassini is about 3.26 billion, including the costs for tracking and monitoring. And that’s over 20 years. You know what else costs 3.26 billion? Pennywise’s hair and the constant real-time photoshopping of his preternaturally small mitts. Per year. But let’s take a real example. The total cost of the F22 Raptor program is estimated to be around Sixty-Seven billion. For a problem-plagued program whose end goal is to give us yet another thing to kill people with and blow shit up.
And let’s spare a thought for Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977 and still operating, sending back tiny bursts of data, way out on the fringes of the solar system, forty years after their launch.
When Cassini plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere tomorrow and disintegrates into a spray of subatomic particles, I’m going to be both very sad and very proud. Because these small, innocuous devices, built to withstand extraordinary conditions, to keep going longer than expected, and to keep surprising and astounding us, may be the one true testament we have left to the dream that maybe, just maybe, the human race can do the same.