Cassini will penetrate the narrow gap between Saturn and its innermost ring about once a week until Sept. 15, when it will crash into Saturn and be incinerated.
The Cassini spacecraft is about to begin its great cosmic swan dive.
On Saturday morning, the spacecraft, which has been circling Saturn and its environs for the past 13 years, will skim over the hazes of Titan, the ringed planet’s biggest moon. Titan’s gravity will reach out and pull Cassini onto a new path, downward into the narrow gap between Saturn and its innermost ring, where no human artifact has ever gone.
Cassini will penetrate that formerly inviolate space not once but 22 times, about once a week until Sept. 15, when it will crash into Saturn and be incinerated. This summer then is the last hurrah for Cassini and the team that has guided it.
Two years ago, Carolyn Porco, the longtime leader of Cassini’s imaging team, teared up during an on-camera interview about the mission, an example of what humans working together could do.
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“It was glorious, just glorious,” she said.
She and many of her colleagues cut their teeth on the Voyager missions, which toured the worlds of the outer solar system during the 1980s and ’90s and are still out there dancing on the magnetic winds that guard the passage to interplanetary space. It was a generation steeped in “Star Trek,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and optimism. Porco even labeled her online reports a captain’s log.
When Cassini was launched in 1997, President Bill Clinton was being investigated for making fundraising calls from the White House and the internet was in its infancy. Cassini, which arrived at Saturn in July 2004, has been a worthy successor to Voyager, no slouch in racking up some 4 billion space miles, circling Saturn and swinging on Titan’s gravity again and again to launch itself on a new course toward one or another strange moon.
Saturn’s little corner of the universe proved to be weirder and more diverse and promising than anyone could have predicted: the six-sided storm that hugs the planet’s North Pole; the mysterious plume-squirting moon Enceladus; and the bedazzling rings, spidery threads of ice, rock and dust — cosmic detritus shed over the ages by comets and meteorite collisions, woven by gravity into warps, braids, knots, walls, as iridescent and changeable as an oil slick.
To Cassini will go the credit for discovering what many astronomers think is the most likely place to find evidence of life beyond Earth. That would be Enceladus, which the spacecraft found is shooting plumes of salty water out of cracks in the ice that makes up its surface.
Cassini also gets bragging rights for exploring Titan, perhaps the strangest moon in the solar system. When Voyager went by it in 1980, it was just a promising smoggy ball, the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere even thicker than Earth’s. Cassini’s Huygens probe landed in a frozen world of methane dunes and riverbeds, among other forms of hydrocarbon slush. Its radar has detected oily lakes of methane and ethane that might be fizzing nitrogen bubbles like newly poured Champagne.
What kind of chemistry might be slouching toward life on such a world? Along with an Enceladus probe, a boat to sail Titan’s methane seas has appeared on the wish lists of planetary scientists.
One reason scientists want to make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey is to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there. Just in case.
With all this, it is fitting that Cassini’s end should come with a swan dive through those fabled rings.
For as long as humans have looked up with telescopes, the finest, most alluring thing they could see was the ringed planet. Galileo, the first to see the rings, never knew what he was looking at. They have been a symbol of mystery ever since, of ineffable things just beyond our reach.
Now we have extended our reach.
Nothing Cassini has done or found so far has moved the markets back on Earth. It moved only our souls, our minds and our imaginations. It made us freer and bigger by showing how little we know and how much more room there is to expand our thoughts and dreams. How little of nature’s repertoire we have even guessed at.
On June 19, 2013, we all smiled as Cassini took a long-range portrait of Earth. The Earth popped up again peeking through the rings like an eager child looking through the blinds on April 12. That’s us, a little blue dot below the ring plane. A world of hustlers and dreamers.
Goodbye, Saturn. Goodnight, Titan. We’ll be back.