At 7:55 EST this morning, the Cassini spacecraft sent its final message to Earth before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere. Reaching speeds over 77,200 miles (144,200 kilometers) per hour, Cassini experienced temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, causing the spacecraft to char and break apart, its elemental components ultimately diluting in the atmosphere of the gas giant. As NASA poetically put it, Cassini is now a part of the planet it studied.
It sent data back to Earth right up until the end.
It may seem strange that the spacecraft was slated for destruction while previous missions, such as Voyagers 1 and 2 continue, with both probes still heading deeper into space after 40 years of exploration. Yet no such fate was appropriate for Cassini.
Among the most remarkable findings of the Cassini mission came from Saturn’s moons: icy Enceladus was found to have a global ocean and geyser-like jets spewing water vapor. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was discovered to have seas of liquid methane and an ocean of water and ammonia deep below the surface. Both moons provide promising avenues of research for that most thrilling and elusive topic: life itself.
Allowing Cassini to live out the rest of its life naturally, transmitting data well past when it had depleted its fuel reserves, would have put both those moons at risk. Cassini had to devote its final fuel to its own safe disposal.
It seems a strange thing to find the destruction of a spacecraft so moving. Cassini was machine: it felt nothing, desired nothing. It undertook an impressively successful mission and now, nearly 20 years after its launch from Cape Canaveral, it was time for that mission to come to an end.
Yet don’t we all wish to live and die so nobly? To make profound contributions through our efforts and to gracefully exit in a poetic blaze at the appropriate time?
It is beautiful to think of Cassini – a spacecraft I have loved and followed for over a decade – reduced to dust and becoming one with the planet to which it devoted much of its existence; and doing so in service to the remarkable moons with which it was intimately and uniquely acquainted.
If we are to believe Camus, all our fates are absurd; the workman toils everyday at the same tasks. Yet, in itself, this fact need not be tragic.
Truly, there is no meaning in the destruction of a spacecraft which has served well its purpose. Yet it is in these moments – when we find beauty and profoundness in the absurd; when we ascribe nobility to practical acts which mean nothing – these are the moments of consciousness. When we experience wonder generated from the mere act of living. The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.
So thank you, Cassini, for your decades of service. Thank you for the rich array of data you have shared with us, and thank you to the many, many people who made this mission possible. Because of you, I – and the rest of humanity – have seen and learned things we would have never experienced otherwise. There can be no greater gift than that.