19/09

We Will Miss You Cassini

By Geisha Bar

Last week the world lost a very dear friend.

Cassini-Huygens, born in 1982, was the lovechild of the European Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency, and NASA. A combination of NASA’s Cassini probe and ESA’s Huygens lander, she weighed about 2500 kilograms, and measured about two metres tall by four metres wide.

Powered by 33 kilograms of radioactive plutonium-238, she wasn’t always the most popular girl at school. In the late 90s, environmentalist groups were unhappy about Cassini’s fuel source, but the cost to run her on radioactive plutonium was more than worth the potential insight she could transmit to us from foreign worlds.

Cassini-Huygens was the first brave space probe to enter Saturn’s orbit, and on September 15th, it was here where she drew her final robot breaths. Passing by Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, Cassini’s trajectory was altered by Titan’s gravity, causing her to head for Saturn’s atmosphere, where she burned up on entry.

Cassini had run out of fuel, and the team at NASA charged with her mission felt that it would be best to euthanise her in a controlled way to avoid risking any contamination collisions with the moons Titan or Enceladus, both of which offer promise of harbouring life. “Because of planetary protection and our desire to go back to Enceladus, go back to Titan, go back to the Saturn system, we must protect those bodies for future exploration,” stated Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division.

After her 1997 launch from Earth, Cassini traveled almost 8 billion kilometers, collecting over 635GB of data and snapping almost half a million images. Her first foray was two fly-by stalks of Venus, sling-shotting back past Earth and then circling Jupiter. After seven years, she arrived in the realm of the gas giant Saturn – 1.2 billion kilometers from Earth.

Orbiting Saturn 294 times, Cassini completed 162 close fly-bys of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, and pinged photos and data back to us, revealing cold mysterious worlds vastly unlike our own lush temperate home.

RIP Cassini.