Thank you, Cassini

The space­craft uni­fied peo­ple around the globe as it ex­plored the so­lar sys­tem’s far reaches.

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THE CASSINI space­craft em­barked on its cos­mic jour­ney across our so­lar sys­tem two decades ago. Af­ter 4.9 bil­lion miles of travel, the mis­sion came to an end early Friday morn­ing in a bit­ter­sweet fi­nale as the orbiter ran out of fuel and crashed into Saturn’s at­mo­sphere. Its planned demise rep­re­sents the end of an era for a gen­er­a­tion of space re­searchers, but it also marks a pro­found ac­com­plish­ment for hu­man­ity and sci­ence.

Dur­ing the course of its voy­age, the Cassini space probe vis­ited three of our neigh­bor­ing plan­ets, dis­cov­ered six new moons and beamed back thou­sands of stun­ning pho­tos to its home planet. It cap­tured not only the in­her­ent hu­man spirit of ex­plo­ration — trav­el­ing more than 100,000 times the dis­tance of Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan’s ex­pe­di­tion to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the globe — but also the imag­i­na­tion of mil­lions of peo­ple. Across this globe it kin­dled sci­en­tific in­quiry in the minds of young peo­ple.

In many ways, the Cassini mis­sion em­bod­ies the best of our species. Twenty-seven na­tions poured re­sources into the voy­age — not for the sake of con­quest, but for the pur­suit of knowl­edge. Af­ter de­posit­ing its Huy­gens probe into the hazy Saturn moon of Ti­tan, Cassini dis­cov­ered seas of liq­uid meth­ane. And while div­ing into the icy plumes of Ence­ladus, it dis­cov­ered a frigid, yet ac­tive world com­plete with or­ganic com­pounds — the build­ing blocks of life on Earth.

Could it be that moons in the Satur­nian sys­tem har­bor mi­cro­bial neigh­bors — the first ev­i­dence of life else­where in the uni­verse? We do not yet know, but the dis­cov­er­ies tug on hu­man­ity’s ad­ven­tur­ous spirit. This is more than just cu­rios­ity, it is hope for a greater un­der­stand­ing about life.

Hu­mans have now sent ro­botic rep­re­sen­ta­tives to visit each of our so­lar sys­tem’s plan­ets and the dwarf planet Pluto. Upon ar­rival, we have dis­cov­ered new moons and mind-blow­ing ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures that hum­ble those found in our own world. We have even landed a space­craft on a comet.

Hu­man in­ge­nu­ity has ad­vanced by in­cred­i­ble lengths since men first landed on the moon in 1969. But Cassini’s obit­u­ary should not also mark the end of hu­man ex­plo­ration — far from it. Just like other mis­sions that have come to an end, Cassini’s jour­ney of­fers a man­date for more: in this case, to re­turn to Saturn and con­tinue the search for life be­yond Earth.

Sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers at NASA, the Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and else­where who worked on the Cassini mis­sion should be com­mended for their decades-long work. Peo­ple across the globe will see the im­ages and read about their dis­cov­er­ies for gen­er­a­tions. Cassini’s re­tire­ment de­serves not only a fond farewell, but also proud ap­plause for its con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence.


Mem­bers of the Cassini mis­sion con­trol team re­act as they work through the fi­nal mo­ments of the space­craft’s ex­is­tence, on Friday at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif.

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