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Farewell Cassini…

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As you read this, an incredible space journey is coming to an end. After spending the past 13 years looping around Saturn, exploring and studying its glittering rings and many, many moons, the Cassini space probe is preparing to end its mission by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn, where it will burn up like a shooting star. Before then, in these final hours, as it falls towards Saturn Cassini will gather priceless data about the planet’s churning atmosphere, and take its final photos of the planet and its moons, after already taking almost half a million…

For space scientists and enthusiasts alike this is a very sad time. Cassini has been a staggeringly successful mission, and people are very loyal to it and proud of it. Launched in  October 1997 the probe then took almost seven years to fly out to Saturn, flying past – and taking photos of – Earth, Venus and Jupiter along the way. After reaching Saturn in July 2004 it then began whooping and looping around it, like a moth flying around and around a streetlight. During the following 13 years the probe did everything asked of it and much, much more. It showed us geysers shooting glittering plumes of icy spray out of cracks near the south pole of Enceladus. It found lakes on Saturn’s largest moon, the planet-sized Titan. It showed us fascinating clumps, knots and streamers of material inside Saturn’s rings. It carried the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe to Titan, which landed on that fascinating moon and sent us back a single, tantalising image of its icy surface. And more… and more… and more…

For the past 13 years Cassini has become part of our lives – and by “our” I have no hesitation in lumping together professional scientists and astronomy- and spaceflight-enthusiasts. We have gotten used to (but hopefully never taken for granted) living in a world where we could go online and, with just a couple of clicks of a mouse or taps of a touchscreen, see brand new images sent back by Cassini. Not just now and again, but literally every single day. It’s as if we’ve been riding piggyback on the probe, swooping around the Saturn system like Harry Potter on his broomstick, seeing what Cassini was seeing.  Through Cassini’s unblinking eyes we’ve watched golden sunlight glinting off Titan’s methane lakes, seen aurora fluttering and flickering around Saturn’s poles, and glimpsed Earth shining through a gap in Saturn’s rings. We have truly lived through a golden age of exploration.

And on Friday it all ends, with Cassini hurtling into Saturn’s curdled clouds, streaking through it, briefly trailing flames like the Enterprise burning up in the atmosphere of the Genesis Planet before flaring and fading away, gone forever.

There’ll be no “live footage” of this; there’s no camera crew patiently orbiting Saturn preparing to beam back heart-wrenching film of Cassini’s demise, so  we won’t be able to watch the probe perish. But thanks to NASA TV we will be able to watch the Cassini team’s reactions as they sit at their consoles, monitoring the probe’s last signals come back to Earth. We’ll be able to see their faces – no doubt some of them streaked with tears – as they witness, electronically, Cassini’s last moments before it falls silent. Then, when all their monitors and screens are blank, we’ll know its end is near, and at some point not too long after that they will know that it has gone, their beloved, beautiful silver and gold space-probe reduced to a cloud of ash that will be scattered by Saturn’s sweeping winds…

It will be a sad, sad day. Literally the end of an era.

Some people are asking “what’s all the fuss about?” They say “It’s only a machine!”. And that’s true. Cassini is just a machine, a collection of (perfectly) manufactured and assembled parts put together to do a job, and that job was to study Saturn and its moons. That job is now over and it will be disposed off in the most effective way. Why all this wailing and gnashing of teeth over a machine?

Because Cassini is more than just a machine. True, as it plunges through Saturn’s clouds it will not be aware; it won’t feel excitement or fear. It won’t feel pain as the heat of its entry into Saturn’s atmosphere turns it into a flaming torch; it won’t scream as pieces of it snap off and spiral away behind it; it won’t howl as what’s left of its body finally falls apart into a cloud of debris that will then be scorched to ash, ash that will be caught by Saturn’s winds and scattered like charred confetti. It won’t feel a thing.

But back on Earth many, many people will.

Because like all these amazing machines Cassini was made by people, not other machines. Back in the 1980s Cassini was designed by people using computers which now are on display in museums. It was then built by incredibly skilled engineers and technicians, put together piece by piece like the most complicated jigsaw puzzle or model imaginable. Then it was launched and guided safely to Saturn by yet more incredibly skilled people. And since arriving at Saturn 13 years ago it has been steered around the planet – sent skipping from shining icy moon to shining icy moon, sent soaring above, beneath and over its rings, flown around and around Titan -by yet more amazingly clever and skillful people. Every one of them worked unbelievably hard, over many, many years, to get to do those jobs and to have those responsibilities, and once they were on the mission and contributing to it they dedicated themselves to it. How many family birthdays did they miss because they were working on Cassini? How many anniversary presents did they forget to buy because their heads were full of Cassini “stuff”? How many of their children’s school plays or music recitals did they have to miss because they had to work late to solve an “issue”?

Cassini left Earth in 1997, twenty years ago. Twenty years. During that time, I wonder how many of the people working on it have had children? How many of them have got married? How many of them have seen their babies grow up and go to college, or get married and have children of their own?

When Cassini has gone it will leave a big hole behind for those of us who are “into” this kind of thing. I know I will miss going online each day and drooling over the latest images showing exquisite detail in Saturn’s rings or tiny details on the surface of one of its moons. But imagine how the men and women on the Cassini team will feel. Many of them will have spent a lot – some, perhaps all – of their professional careers working on it; when the mission is over they are going to be absolutely gutted. It will leave a gaping hole behind.

So, you see, Cassini isn’t “Just a machine”. It’s the tip of a huge, huge iceberg of human experiences. It has been a very important part of many people’s lives.

As a voyage of exploration and discovery, Cassini’s mission will be viewed in years – in centuries – to come as being every bit as important and historic as those of the great explorers of the past, who crossed storm-tossed oceans, scaled towering mountains and hacked through jungles in pursuit of knowledge. Cassini’s ocean was space; its towering mountain was the Sun’s gravity; its jungle was Time. We are all lucky, and privileged, to have been alive at the time in mankind’s history when Cassini was studying Saturn.

So when you see those scientists looking ready to burst into tears – or actually bursting into tears – on Friday, don’t think “Oh come on, it’s just a machine!” Cassini is a machine of metal, glass and wire, yes, but it’s a machine built with love, held together by insatiable curiosity and flown on invisible wings of dreams. To every one of those people sitting behind a desk on Friday, staring at a monitor, Cassini will mean something different, but important. Professional to the end they will look calm, cool, collected, but as Cassini falls silent they will feel its loss very personally, and sincerely. I wish I could be there to stand behind them and just squeeze their shoulder.

A great adventure is about to end, and it will be a long time until another mission shows us such amazing sights or tells us so much about one of our sister worlds as Cassini has done. So on Friday, watch the NASA TV coverage if you can, and bid Cassini a fond farewell. She has been a proud ship, and has served us well. By Friday night her voyage will be at an end, but she will live on through her images and her scientific results.

And every time we look at Saturn from now on, either with just our naked eyes or through the eyepiece of a telescope, we’ll know that Cassini is still out there, flying through the planet’s butterscotch-hued clouds, riding the planet’s winds.

Godspeed Cassini.

And thank you.

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