Cassini, so named for the Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, was launched into space in October 1997 and arrived in Saturn’s orbit in 2004. It has been providing knowledge of Saturn and its moons for the past 13 years.
Now, at long last, its intrepid mission has come to a close. On September 15, Cassini crashed towards the surface of Saturn and was burnt up in the planet’s atmosphere and so, the sun set on one of the most important and revealing space missions the world has ever seen.
Since mankind first looked at the stars, we have wondered what was out there in the universe, and whether we were truly alone in the vast expanse of space. Missions like Cassini bring us ever closer to discovering answers to these questions.
During the course of its journey, Cassini revealed an astounding range of new information about Saturn. Its rings, for example, do not exist in stasis, but rather, are comprised of millions upon millions of bands of dust; constantly moving and reshaping independently of each other.
Onboard Cassini was a lander named Huygens, named after the Dutch astronomer and mathematician. Huygen’s purpose was to land on Saturn’s largest moon Titan, which has been of academic interest for sometime due to its dense atmosphere.
It is, in fact, the only moon in this solar system to boast this status.
Upon landing on Titan, Huygen allowed the ground team to get the first ever view of the moon, and it was revealed to be even more similar to Earth than previously assumed, with a landscape intercut with rivers and streams, and methane clouds hanging in an orange sky. The existence of a moon like Titan gives so much credibility to the possibility of alien life existing somewhere in the universe.
Perhaps the most intriguing discovery of the Cassini-Huygens mission however, was the exploration of the moon Enceladus which, to the surprise of everyone at Nasa, contained evidence of a subterranean ocean and possibly hydrothermal vents (similar to those found on Earth, where scientists posit life began). There are now talks at Nasa about a future mission to Enceladus to further explore the possibility of life forms on the moon.
Though Cassini itself may no longer be with us, the information discovered during the mission will no doubt influence many more such explorations in the following decades. While this month marked the end of an amazing journey of scientific discovery, it was ultimately only a stepping stone in the journey of mankind’s exploration of space.
Whatever mistakes mankind may make, humanity’s most admirable quality has always been curiosity.
The fact that scientists, technicians, and anyone else involved in projects like Cassini devote their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, is truly what makes humans as special a species as we are.
Missions such as this are a symbol that whatever challenges face this planet, there is so much else out there in the universe, which humans will forever endeavour to discover.