Cassini has been humankind’s proxy-visit to Saturn, a diminutive, polite and empathetic ambassador dispatched to learn more about a tremendous planet.
Cassini’s Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s hard to write this without tearing up. We all realise the absurdity of thinking of machines like we think of people, and to be plunged into sadness when those machines fight to stay alive, beating back desperately – and futilely – against the forces that will eventually send them careening into oblivion. Machines and robots are many things, but they’re not alive.
Fortunately, it’s easy to extricate Cassini from this calculating way of thinking because it was the effort of a team of people working decades to send it – a van-sized assemblage of metal and glass – on a 1.5-billion-km journey across space, to observe a giant planet, its resplendent rings and its regalia of over three score moons. Almost everything we know about Saturn today was either discovered or rediscovered by Cassini. Our textbooks are filled with what Cassini saw, heard, registered. Many generations of physicists, astronomers and astrobiologists are going to be fascinated by Saturn because of Cassini.
When our conception of an entire planet and its harmonies is thanks to ...