Cassini – A Memorial by Ted Wesemann
Earlier this semester at The Outdoor Academy on the morning of September 15, the Cassini mission to Saturn ended as the probe vaporized upon entering the planet’s atmosphere. There was something anthropomorphically “wall.e” -like about this tough little spacecraft that said so much about the human race even though it was a machine, albeit a sophisticated one. Some scientists had been working for 30 years on this mission, even as they raised their kids and celebrated holidays and voted for presidents and endured personal triumphs and tragedies. It was so clear as NASA streamed the final day of Cassini that this was a very emotional event for this team. Footage of them from the 1990s with their antiquated computers and hairstyles and clothing alternated with the live feed, accentuating the passage of time. Whole careers had passed. One group of specialists were still using the original computers and software in order to talk to the spacecraft – 20 years of technology stuck in time.
The mission brought the cliched “treasure trove” of new knowledge about Saturn, certainly, but maybe more importantly about the moons, especially Europa and Enceladus. Finding liquid water jetting into space on Enceladus, a 300 mile-diameter snowball, was beyond unexpected – it shifted our foundations. It was the first thing I’ve ever heard that made me truly think, seriously consider and not just imagine, that we may not be alone in our universe – maybe not even in our own solar system. Just the good news of water. So simple and universal. Flowing, cycling, shimmering, hydrating, saturating, refreshing, light-scattering, nourishing, life-giving, life-saving water. Not every other body orbiting around our star is a scorched wasteland or frozen gaseous giant. At least two have oceans of good old plain water. I have a glass of it in front of me with a few chunks of the solid form cooling it. It’s streaming luxuriantly out of the hose into the fishpond outside right now. I am mostly water. So is my cat and the goldfinch at the birdbath that she is eyeing. I just poured a little on my orchid. And by the way, there is lots more only about a billion kilometers away. “To be found on Enceladus” said our little robot, our little friend – Cassini.