NASA’s en­rich­ing mis­sion

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION -

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.

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