14 September 2017

Video of the day -- the climax of a great achievement

The Cassini space probe set off on its voyage to Saturn in 1997 and arrived in 2004.  In the thirteen years since then, it has sent us a vast wealth of information about the planet and its moons.  Tomorrow, its mission ends -- plunging into the very atmosphere of Saturn, about which it will continue transmitting data to the last.

Cassini illustrates perfectly why we have been wise to give up long-range manned space flight and use unmanned probes to explore our solar system.  At our present level of technology, a manned expedition probably could not have endured the seven-year voyage to Saturn.  It certainly could not have been kept on-site there for thirteen years to gather so much information.  It could not have been subjected to the risks of multiple high-velocity passes through the narrow gap between the planet and its rings.  And it obviously could not have been sent on this final "suicide" mission into the atmosphere.

It is natural to feel a little sad at the sacrifice of Cassini after all it has accomplished for its distant creators.  But in reality, Cassini should be remembered as one of the most successful scientific research projects in history -- one which achieved a great expansion of human knowledge without any risk to human life.

[Video found via Hackwhackers, which has its own post on the Cassini mission.  Here's info on NASA's live coverage Friday morning.]


Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

I remember when Cassini was launched--there was the controversy over it being nuclear-powered. I remember just shaking my head in disbelief because whatever criticisms I have of nuclear power, it was the only thing that could power a spacecraft past the asteroid belt (the Juno probe being the lone exception).

It's safe to say that it has been a hugely successful mission, especially the Huygens probe touching down on Titan (which made me run to get a copy of James P. Hogan's Code Of The Lifemaker, which showcased a race of intelligent robots living on Titan!). Cassini is also featured in Stephen Baxter's novel Titan where a manned mission is launched to Titan in the early 21st century--a mission that takes seven years and where the US has elected a know-nothing bigot as President who starts pissing off the rest of the world with his bellicose attitude (spoiler alert: it doesn't end well for the human race).

While I hope for a manned mission to the outer planets and the expansion of humanity into space (hey, I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke and I love THE EXPANSE novels and the anime Cowboy Bebop and Planetes!) I have sadly come to the realization that the space program is tied to politics, and when you have politicians who are anti-science and selfish--not to mention a population that has been fed the lie that the space program gets more money than education, social security, and other entitlements and is also science-illiterate--it means that we as a nation won't be making the huge strides that we saw in the 1960s. Other countries and some industries are picking up the baton.

All right, enough of my jawboning. The Cassini mission's discoveries will be studied for decades to come, and I'm glad that I'm here to see that finally, mankind has actually explored all the planets of the solar system (and yes, I'm including Pluto!).

16 September, 2017 11:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: I could understand concern about the possibility of a rocket carrying a nuclear-powered probe exploding on launch or soon after, and spreading fallout over the surrounding area. I assume precautions were taken against that. Trump will probably insist that all such probes in the future run on coal.

I know of James P. Hogan from Inherit the Stars, one of my favorite SF novels. I really need to read more, though. Another novel that involved a probe to Saturn (discovering the ruins of a long-dead civilization on one moon) was Christof Schade's Das Paulus-Projekt, but I don't think it's ever been translated.

I think humans will expand into space eventually, but it will be post-Singularity, after we've transcended our present biological limitations. I just don't see the traditional concept of giant ships containing fragile organic beings crossing interstellar space to be plausible, unless we develop something like Larry Niven's "hyperdrive" in the next decade or two, and maybe not even then. Even in the outer solar system, probes traveling faster than a bullet take years to reach their target planets. The distances are just too huge. I know some countries like China have talked about a manned Mars mission, but given the expense and risks and lack of any scientific reason to do it, I'm pretty confident that it's just talk.

The only scenario I could see leading to a manned expedition to Jupiter or Saturn would be something like 2001 -- evidence of intelligent alien activity out there. An unmanned probe could never be versatile enough to handle all the interactions that might be necessary. Even so, it would be terribly dangerous -- no doubt plenty of scientists would volunteer, though.

And yes, Pluto is definitely a planet. Decades of astronomical tradition and Sailor Moon can't both be wrong.

16 September, 2017 13:07  

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