Just molecules in the wind — Cassini-Huygens Mission ends

It seems September has been dominated by bad news. North America and the Caribbean were hit by multiple hurricanes, Mexico was racked by a pair of devastating earthquakes and the U.S. and North Korea seem to be playing a game of nuclear chicken.

It’s easy to overlook other things during such a time, even things that will impact our lives much longer in the overall scheme of humanity.

So, instead of talking about those things we’re being bombarded with right now, I’d like to talk to about the Cassini-Huygens Mission, which officially ended when the Cassini orbiter was pulverized into non-existence by the atmosphere of Saturn earlier this month.

The Cassini-Huygens Mission got its start Oct. 15, 1997. It was a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. In total, it was the cooperative effort of education and industrial partners in 33 states (Arkansas was not one of them) and 16 European countries. Since then, a total of 27 countries have participated in the mission.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is named for the aforementioned Cassini Orbiter, which itself is named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini who discovered the rings of Saturn in 1675. He also shares credit for discovering Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

The Huygens Probe was named after Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens who discovered Saturn’s moon Titan in 1655.

Both the names were tied to the mission to each. Cassini would orbit Saturn, gathering information on its rings, atmosphere and weather.

Huygens would split from Cassini and land on Titan, which is considered probably the next most survivable place in the solar system after Earth. This is because Titan, unlike Mars, has an atmosphere and atmospheric pressure, which would eliminated the need for a pressure suit and thus all one would need to walk its surface is a way to stay warm and a way to breathe.

After its launch, Cassini would take an indirect route to Saturn, making a fly by of Venus to get a gravity boost to speed up its six-year, 261-day trip, inserting itself into Saturn’s orbit on July 1, 2004.

Now, if you had a cosmic car and took the direct path to Saturn when it’s at its closest to Earth, which is 741 million miles, and drove at 60 miles per hour, 24 hours a day without ever stopping, you’d make it to Saturn in about 1,419 years.

Cassini was making discoveries until its final moments. We found new moons, on of them being in Saturn’s famous rings. We peered beneath the clouds of Titan and saw its plains of ice and rivers of liquid methane. Ending 13 years of exploration.

It leaves a legacy not only in space exploration, but here on Earth as well.

One of those innovations, which is probably the most widely used, is the solid-state recorder.

At first, you may say “huh?”

Cassini was the first spacecraft to a use solid-state recorders, which records without any moving parts, aside from electrons. It’s hard to imagine now, but before the Cassini-Huygens mission, most of us were using tapes and discs to record information. Now, thanks in part to the work done with the Cassini mission, tapes and discs for recording are in large part a thing of the past for most of us.

Digital camera and audio recording equipment as a whole has probably contributed much more to the economy than what we put into Cassini as a whole, which was around a $3.6 billion investment for the mission as a whole.

Cassini also marked the first civilian use of Very High Speed Integrated Circuits, which were used to build Cassini’s “brain.” Cassini, in a way, helped us develop ways to understand remotely operated hardware in even better ways. This civilian use can be used to make better robots, better weather satellites and a variety of other remote equipment that do us a great service.

But however you look at it, the space program is a good investment because it develops things that we wind up using, and wind up using a lot. In turn that creates sales, manufacturing and research jobs.

Cassini’s final image was a view of Saturn’s atmosphere, covered with clouds. The rings were in the distance. Some few minutes after that, it was over. It was just molecules in the wind.

While, it may be the end of Cassini, we have 2018 to look forward to. The James Webb Space Telescope will come online and show us far more than its predecessor, Hubble. In 20 years though, one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments is scheduled — putting the first human on Mars.

We’ll see about that one.

Originally printed in the Batesville Daily Guard

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