As I write this, I’m watching news footage of Hurricane Irma, a category 4 storm, tear through Florida. Such a devastating weather event would be devastating enough on its own, but coming so close on the heels of another horrible storm, Harvey, which left Houston underwater, makes Irma all the more traumatic. If you’re looking for ways to help, there are many charities out there to contribute to, such as the Red Cross, and on Sept. 12, the major networks will air a benefit show called Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Harvey at 8 p.m. on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and CMT.
While my thoughts are with people in Florida and Texas, as is often the case with me, I’ve become distracted by news from the cosmos. I often look to the stars in times of trouble, and I’m not sure if it’s because it’s easier than facing the problems at hand, or because space is just that badass. It’s probably a mixture of both.
Nevertheless, one of humanity’s greatest explorers is about to call it a day, going out like a gangsta as it burns up and crashes into Saturn. The spacecraft Cassini began its lonely mission 20 years ago in October 1997. It then took a seven-year trip across the solar system before it arrived at Saturn where its work began.
In 2005, Cassini, the precocious scamp that it is, dropped off a probe on Saturn’s moon Titan, like a boss. That probe, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe, confirmed the existence of water on Titan.
A decade later, Cassini collected data from another of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, that suggested a heated ocean existed beneath the celestial body’s icy surface. The presence of water, of course, could suggest that life could exist or has existed on one of these moons. Perhaps they’re just microbes or whatever, but maybe even if they are, who knows? I’m sure given billions of years to evolve, maybe even microbes can become sentient. If that’s the case, and any of them are reading this, I’d just like to say, “‘Sup, guys. Sorry we’ve been spying on you with all these probes and such. It’s just how humans say, ‘hi.’”
So Cassini has been a busy little craft, but over the past year, it’s been more industrious than ever. In April, it began its “Grand Finale,” as a video released by NASA called it. Since then, Cassini has been making repeated dives in the gap between Saturn and its rings, which may be the most metal thing anything has ever done. In so doing, it’s produced some of the most drool-worthy photos of the gas giant’s most iconic feature we have ever seen.
But like all of us, Cassini, too, must succumb to the cold hand of death. The spacecraft is running out of fuel. In fact, on Sept. 15, 2016, more than 740 million miles away from the planet of its origin, Cassini will have completed its mission. Unfortunately, It won’t receive a gold watch upon its retirement (I’m not sure even the finest Rolex would function in the deepest reaches of space), nor will it receive a well-deserved pension or benefit from Social Security (by the time it got back here, one would have to wonder if the latter would even still exist). No, Cassini will go out like it lived—like a boss. It will fight “to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth and transmit its farewell,” the aforementioned video said poetically, “as Cassini becomes part of the planet itself.”
As cool as it is that this little spacecraft that could made it all the way out to wherever the fuck Saturn is and hung out for almost 20 years and sent back all these neat photos and data, who knows it if will ever really matter. Sure, it gives nerds like me a monumental space boner, but that doesn’t really amount to a whole lot. Does it really matter if there’s water on a distant world that none of us will ever get to—that our grandchildren’s grandchildren even won’t ever step foot on? Probably not. Then there’s this other part of me that thinks that the only reason we got this far as a species is because some ancestor of ours looked up at the sky and said to the people standing next to him, “What the fuck is all that shit?” Sure, they probably went on to sacrifice others in appeasement of whatever god they thought put it all up there, but it was still a very important step. Maybe Cassini is, too. Maybe in 10,000 years when our future selves are hanging out in a Starbucks on Enceladus, they’ll point to a distant blue marble that we used to call home and say, “Remember when we used to live there? Let’s not make that same mistake again.”