Saying goodbye to my favorite space craft, on the eve of its entry into Saturn's atmosphere.
Tonight the Cassini spacecraft will enter the atmosphere of Saturn, burning up like a meteor. I’ve enjoyed following this robot’s story since I was a child, and (though it feels silly) I’m genuinely sad about its passing. This 13 year mission ends today, with no follow-up in the works. Public interest is important for (publicly funded) planetary science, and while not everyone is excited by the the hydrothermal vents of Enceladus or the carbonated seas of Titan, I think there is a very compelling, deeply human reason to continue visiting these far flung worlds.
Sixty some odd thousand years ago humanity woke up from the billions of years of
(relative) cognitive darkness experienced by our more distant ancestors and created out
of nothing the immensely social, linguistically diverse, and art filled world we have
inhabited ever since. With a spirit of wonder we spread outwards from our humble
beginnings, overcoming the barriers of sea, desert and ice to scatter ourselves
across the world. The adaptability of our minds allowed the human experience
to branch out fractal-like into thousands of peoples who shared no common language,
customs or environment. But all across the world, we shared the sky. For thousands
of generations we have stared upwards in fear and uncomprehending wonder, contemplating
the blanket of twinkling lights as it rotates through the night. Some lights are
different - wandering night after night across the fixed dome of stars.
Each and every one of us has had thousands of grandfathers and grandmothers who have stared up at these wanderers, wondering what they could be. But no generation before our own has grown up in a world with the luxury to see them up close - to have photographs taken by robotic emissaries in our childhood books, and high-definition videos from these far off worlds beamed to our phones.
We owe it to our ancestors, to the billions upon billions of us who have stared skyward in awe from the time of the mammoths to the time of the skyscrapers, to explore these worlds. To be taken aback by their beauty, to try to comprehend their immensity, to use them to inform both our art and our science, and through our appreciation of them, to feel our forebearers thoughts across the eons.
Cassini, you were the first long term guest from my world to Saturn, and you revealed beauty my countless grandfathers couldn’t even begin to imagine. You make me optimistic for our future, and force me to recognize the present’s context in the deep past of my people. Thank you, trusty robot, you’ve made my species proud.