My Farewell to Cassini and Thoughts on Space Exploration

If I had become a scientist, my choice for a field of study would have been either ornithology or botany. If not one of those two, I would have chosen astronomy. Although I can accurately rattle off the names of North American bird species better than I’d fair at naming constellations, discoveries in outer space have still always held a special wistful wonder for me since I was a child.

To this day, I’ll be the first to brave the chilly temperatures of a 20-degree winter night with my Dad for a possible glimpse of the comet Catalina through our telescope. Or how about this past summer when my family and I chased the Aurora Borealis when news broke on Twitter that they’d be seen in our area (a very rare and spectacular sight).

As for our comet chasing, we didn’t actually get to see Catalina that night — but we did get a rare chance to spot one of Jupiter’s moons through our scope. To me, it was more than enough reward for standing out in the finger numbing cold. I also have wonderful memories of marshmallow popcorn and meteor shower watch parties with my Mom and my sister.

Maybe it was the solar system mobile that hung in our homeschool room — or watching NASA in 2003 as the Spirit and Curiosity Rovers landed on Mars that sparked my interest. I’ve enjoyed following the explorations of outer space throughout my school years and beyond into adulthood.

The most recent news from NASA about the grand finale of the exploratory spacecraft Cassini was a wake up call as to just how fast time flies. I remember when Cassini was launched in 1997. In 2004, seven years later, I marveled at how long it had taken the spacecraft to arrive in Saturn’s orbit. It gave me an amazing perspective on the size of our universe.

Saturn has always held special interest to me. In grade school I decided it was my favorite planet, because it was the only one with those amazing rings. To see the completion of this very historic era of Saturn exploration this week was special and bittersweet.

As I watched Cassini’s final signal on the NASA Twitter feed in the wee hours of last Friday morning, I was struck with the gravity of the moment. A couple of questions came to mind….

What will be Cassini’s legacy — its impact on space exploration ? How much did we learn about Saturn and why is it important? While it may be years before we know the full impact of Cassini’s contributions, here are my Top 5 favorite things that Cassini taught us about Saturn.

  1. In Cassini’s lifetime, it sent back over 450,000 images of Saturn and the surrounding area.
  2. Cassini allowed us an up close and in depth look at Saturn’s weather patterns and its seasons. Most notably, scientists were able to closely observe the hexagonal shaped storms that develop on the planetary surface. Why the storms are shaped like hexagons isn’t yet known, but one theory suggests that rotating liquid at different rates of speed can produce unusual shapes. This could be a hint as to what goes on within Saturn’s atmosphere.
  3. With Cassini’s help, scientists were able to determine that Saturn’s rings were in fact, made of ice chunks of various sizes — some very small, others ginormous.
  4. We also learned a lot about Saturn’s moons. Detailed images from Cassini revealed waves created inside Saturn’s rings were further animated by the orbit of the moons like Daphnis embedded in within the rings. We also learned that one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, is the source of one of Saturn’s rings of ice. The ring was created by eruptions of ice chunks from Enceladus’ surface.
  5. Speaking of Saturn’s moons, one of Cassini’s most interesting contributions to what we know about Saturn was actually its study of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. From Cassini, the Huygen’s lander was deployed to land on Titan. From Huygens we saw Titan’s icy surface up close for the first time. Cassini itself also studied Titan and yielded many interesting discoveries about the lunar surface, including the presence of lakes, rivers and oceans made of hydrocarbons, which are compounds made of hydrogen and carbon.

These interesting facts barely scratch the surface of what Cassini has meant to our study of the universe. Really, this article is just my attempt at comprehending the vast reaches of space and time…. and how Cassini helped us understand Saturn better.

But perhaps what I’m trying to understand more than anything is the way the study of the universe speaks to me on a deeply personal, even spiritual level. A level at which my finite mind tries and fails to fully comprehend the greatness of our Creator God Who created these things all by Himself. The fact that He chooses to share His handiwork with us blows my mind.

If you’d like to learn more about Cassini, I recommend checking out NASA’s website all about the mission to Saturn. Goodbye Cassini! You will be missed….

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.”

‭‭Psalm‬ ‭19:1‬ ‭NIV‬‬