Cassini: Mission to Saturn

When I was younger, the thought of space terrified me. I never wanted to be an astronaut like other kids, nor did I want to think about what could be ‘up’ there. This may be due to my demented brothers, who tormented me with the never-ending joke that aliens were going to take me away one day. I do however, always remember loving E.T. But after my two brothers showed me Alien vs. Predator, I was horrified.

Jump forward a few years later, and I saw my first shooting star. I think this is when I realized how amazing space is. I stopped thinking that we might not be alone, and started admiring the gift we truly have.

Nowadays, I am in awe of space exploration. The fact that humanity has been capable of doing so is mind-boggling to me. There is a lot to wonder about space. We don’t know all the answers about it quite yet. We do know it is vast and beautiful, yet we really don’t know just how vast (or how beautiful, for that matter.)

Recently I started researching NASA a lot more than just hearing about the latest blip on the radar. I came across one of NASA’s missions that overwhelmingly astonished me.

Cassini is an unmanned spacecraft sent to the planet Saturn. It orbits Saturn, studying the ringed planet and its moons in detail. The most amazing piece of this puzzle to me, Cassini’s journey began over 20 years ago.

I know Apollo 11 landed humans on the Moon in 1969, yet I don’t think I’ve ever truly taken that in. To me, I am amazed to be on a planet where there are people that intelligent. I definitely know I’m never going to command a lunar landing. It amazes me though that we had the technology to do such things almost 50 years ago. I really think we need to appreciate that during a time where we may be feeling like were taking a few steps backward.

Any who, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn is the most ambitious effort in planetary space exploration ever. After reaching the icy planet, Cassini will study the Saturnian system. One of the questions NASA along with the European Space Agency, and the Italian space agency plan to solve is what exactly are Saturn’s rings made of? By the way, I know I’ve covered my lack of space traveling abilities, but just in case you were wondering I also have a lack there of in the space knowledge department. Feel free to fact check me on the NASA website!

Due to the fact that Cassini is a 12,345-pound craft, these geniuses had to come up with a way to launch it up there. Something called gravity assist was used. This is really freaking cool guys. So this technique maneuvers the gravitational pull between a moving planet and a spacecraft. Cassini was basically sling-shotted off of another vehicle to orbit around space ever so perfectly (in 1997!!!), in order to end up where they wanted it to go. Cassini looped around the Sun twice, flew close behind Venus where it stole some more momentum in ’98 and ‘99, and finally had enough boosts to make it to the outer Solar System. One last gravity assist maneuver from Jupiter in 2000 gave Cassini the final thrust it needed to project itself all the way to Saturn. My mouth is agape just writing this. The fact that these masterminds figured out a way to pinball this spacecraft just right in space is mind-numbing.

The mission arrived at Saturn in 2004 and is expected to end Sept. 15, 2017. By 2005 though, the Huygens probe, attached to Cassini, parachuted onto the mysterious surface of Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan. This is when images and answers started being beamed back to Earth.

Throughout the past 11 years, Cassini has been sending extraordinary information back to us. We learned that there are lakes on Titan, we learned it has a very similar Earth-like surface and atmosphere, we received the closest images we have ever had of Saturn, the biggest storm ever seen close-up in space was documented and we discovered unknown rings we previously had no knowledge of.

One of the coolest parts of this mission, in my eyes, has yet to come. In early 2017, Cassini’s launch will shoot it directly towards Saturn’s innermost ring. This final close encounter will include 22 loops around the ring and I for one am very excited to find out what these rings consist of. Again, I must stress how in the world did these really really smart people figure out how this thing was going to travel perfectly around in space. This will always impress me.

At the end of Cassini’s mission, sadly, it will enter Saturn’s atmosphere and be crushed and vaporized by the pressure and temperature. If you too are feeling a little personally hurt by this after getting invested in Cassini’s life, don’t fret. Cassini will gather information up until its “last breath.” We will obtain information we have so far never dreamed of having, and I think Cassini has had a pretty good 20 years up there.

I know a lot of specifics were compiled into my own words here, so I understand if this story presents a lot more questions. That’s actually my goal. I am so awestruck with our world’s ability to explore space, I can only hope I’ve sparked some kind of urge to know more. The thing I am certain of though, space is pretty amazing. If this current career path I’ve chosen doesn’t pan out, maybe I’ll look more into this.


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