Eleven Years of Cassini

This is incredible. On October 15, 1997, over 18 years ago, NASA’s Cassini-Hyugens spacecraft was launched on its mission to Saturn. I remember hearing the news, telling a couple of people, and feeling like I was the only one in the world who cared. As anyone who’s listened to me drone on knows, my life changed when I saw what Voyager 1 and Voyagers 2 had to say about Saturn, so I’ve been very interested in what Cassini has shown us.

It took about seven years to get to Saturn, and on Christmas Day 2004, I remember watching and reading the news to find out all I could about the Hyugens probe, which was dropped into the atmosphere on Saturn’s moon, Titan—the only moon in the solar system with a thick atmosphere (also the only moon other than our own to have had a report written on it by me).

Since then, Cassini has sent back one incredible photo after another, while the world has gone on a billion miles from it. A billion miles. We’ve all grown and changed in that time, and Cassini has plugged away. The amount of understanding about Saturn, its incredible rings, it’s moons, and the solar system as a whole that world has gotten from Cassini is (probably) impossible to measure, and it keeps going.

Last week, NASA announced that it will soon start hiring the next batch of its astronauts. They expect at least one of them will be part of the team that will become the first humans to leave low-earth orbit since 1972. That’s undeniably good news, and I’ve said more than my share about how important it is for us to continue exploring space.

We have been, though. These robotic missions might not be as exhilarating as landing people on Mars, but the things that all of the world’s space agencies have been able to do on tight budgets from many millions or billions of miles away have their own sexiness to them. At the moment, there are about 20 probes on active missions in one corner or another of the solar system. Just the other day, it was announced astronomers discovered an object three times further from the sun that Pluto is. Earlier this year, New Horizons finally let us cross Pluto off the list of unexplored objects. Cars are driving on Mars, astronomers are able to tell what the atmospheres on planets orbiting other stars are like, and Voyager 1 is almost 12 billion miles, 20 billion kilometers from home. Some off-hand, and probably poorly rounded, math says that’s so far that it takes light and radio signals almost an entire earth day to get there. The more time goes on, the more it’s clear this is a golden age of space exploration, and we’re all lucky to be a part of it.

If you have four minutes to spare, pour yourself a cup of tea, and have a look at this. It’s a wonderful video put together by the Wall Street Journal that shows footage seen by Cassini’s cameras, along with listings of what was going on back home that day, some bad, some good. The parts with the moons eclipsing other moons is as jaw-dropping today as it was the first time I saw it.



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