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Goodbye Cassini

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 9:25 a.m. CST • Updated: Friday, Sept. 22, 2017 9:23 a.m. CST

Saturn eclipsing the sun is an event, I’ve conceded, I’ll never see in person. But I have seen it in print. I would like to say thank you to the engineers, mathematicians and scientists who’ve spent the last 20 years working on the Cassini Space Probe. You are artists.

The image shows the rings and gassy clouds of Saturn backlit by beams of sunlight. The true image looks like painted canvas, showing the artistry of the universe. Like the “Blue Marble” taken by the crew of Apollo 17 and “Pillars of Creation” taken by the Hubble Space telescope before it, the image stands as the peak of success for a mission now complete.

NASA’s Cassini probe gave its last words Friday in one final radio transmission as the spacecraft performed its grand finale plunge into Saturn’s thick atmosphere. At 1.2 billion kilometers (900 million miles) away, no human was present to see Cassini’s final nose dive, but we all can gain more insight into our own humanity for its accomplishments.

Cassini sent the first lander to outer solar system body with active precipitation and weather — Saturn’s yellow, shrouded moon Titan. The Huygens lander showed us what scientists had already predicted, Saturn’s largest moon has lakes of liquid methane, and the moon’s clouds actively produced rain of the same chemical. Methane on Titan flows like water on Earth, with rivers, streams and lakes slowly reforming the planet’s rocky landscape through erosion over millions of years.

At an average speed of 450 meters per second, Cassini’s 13 years orbiting Saturn included analysis of the planet’s outer and inner atmospheric layers, examining its complex ring system and flying through salty water vapor plumes jetting from beneath the icy crust or the moon Enceladus. Cassini determined a subsurface ocean exists on Enceladus, containing similar chemical make-up to Earth’s oceans.

Cassini has helped make the case for serious research into life beyond Earth but within our own solar system. Cassini was $4 billion well spent.

I’ve written on Cassini’s success before. What the probe learned and shared in its lifetime will forever change how we view our existence.

Carl Sagan once said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Thanks to Cassini, we now have a little better understanding of where we fit in with the other “starstuff.”

Contact Mike Mendenhall at mmendenhall@newtondailynews.com

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