NASA’s enriching mission
This appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Last week, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft went where nothing made by humans had ever gone before — it successfully navigated a path between Saturn and its rings and survived.
Cassini also beamed back pictures and other essential data. The images, which take 78 minutes to make the billion-mile trip back to Earth, reveal a blazing, mysterious process of alternating light and darkness in the rings that scientists will be working to understand for years.
Between now and September, Cassini will make 22 dives between Saturn’s rings and the planet. The result should be a treasure trove of stunning images of the planet.
On Sept. 15, it will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, streaming data back to Earth as it makes its descent of no return.
Cassini will have unveiled many more of Saturn’s secrets before its final moments. No other probe has given humanity as intimate a look at Saturn, its moons and its rings as Cassini has.
There’s no reason to mourn Cassini yet. But a day is coming when it will be gripped by Saturn’s gravity and destroyed within minutes.
Its burned pieces will be strewn across the planet’s gaseous nether regions. Whatever particles make it to the lower atmosphere will be gripped by hurricanestrong winds that scientists believe have raged for thousands of years.
Still, there will be glory in knowing that something from Earth ever made it that far.