The Cassini-huygens probe made its planned dive into the dense atmosphere of Saturn on Friday morning, advancing planetary science until the end of a mission that was spectacular from start to finish.
Cassini truly was an project of humankind. It included the work of scientists and engineers from 27 countries and its discoveries about Saturn and the solar system resulted in nearly 4,000 scholarly papers around the world.
The probe, launched in 1997, discovered six previously unknown moons of Saturn, definitively detailed the structure of the giant planet’s rings, landed a probe on the moon Titan, and recorded more than 450,000 separate images of Saturn and its moons during an extraordinarily complex ballet of 294 orbits across 4.9 billion miles.
Cassini is a machine but its planned destruction at Saturn is a melancholy event simply because of the grandeur of its work, and the justifiable pride of the people responsible for it.
The project’s obvious legacy is the 635 gigabytes of data that it produced. But it also should inspire an even greater legacy — a renewed commitment by the United States to maintain its commitment to science.