End of Mission: Farewell To Cassini

 Subsitute “Cassini” for “Yoshimi” and this really, really works. 

If you’re up right now, you should be tuned into space.com, or NASA, to watch live coverage of the end of Cassini (or, more accurately, the Cassini-Huygens missions).

As it is on, streaming live, the scientist on the air is saying “this is our last image of Enceladus”, limned against an alien sky, that alien world which Cassini showed us might have the conditions for life, and if it doesn’t have life yet, it could so in the future. It could so long after we’re gone. The universe goes on.

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Actual picture of a moon of Saturn

This blog is officially pessimistic about the future of humanity, and the discoveries of Cassini certainly make it clear that we barely exist in this vastness, but it also reminds us that we do. That we’re here. That we all have the enormous and impossible privilege of living in a time where we send satellites to Saturn, where they can take pictures of incredible alien worlds, distant and ringed by the debris of billions of years.

It’s only a few minutes until we get the last signal from Cassini, a decades-long mission whose data will give scientists materials for decades. The discoveries they have made, and will continue to make, teach us about the workings of the solar system, and the universe, and our place in it, our tiny and remarkable spot in this far, remote ring.

Cassini has been dipping into the rings of Saturn for a few months, ready for its final plunge, and even now is learning more about this austere and bizarre planet. It’s scoping out the atmosphere, giving us data on what Saturn actually is, even as it arcs toward its own death.

It’s impossible not to ascribe heroic motivations to the little guy, giving us knowledge about our own small place until the moment it dies. Its antennas will be sending us messages until the last moment of annihiliation, a beautiful goodbye.

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These are the actual rings of Saturn

Think about Saturn. It’s the first world you knew that was recognizeably alien, because it is so weird. Mars is the stuff of myth and legend, of course, and the hellscape of Venus is horrifying because it demonstrates how cosmically close we are to being nothing but brimstone, but Saturn is pure science fiction. It’s the world that looks most different from ours.

Our planet doesn’t have rings. Neither do any of the other planets. Saturn is strange. It shows the vastness of the universe, even in our solar system. Even in the nearness of our orbit. It has the debris of crushed planets and infinite, infinitesimal dust born billions of years ago, coalescing elliptically and spinning endlessly without any concern for our pettiness. It is, and it isn’t, in a shudderingly inhuman way.

Yeah, but goddamn, we have a satellite there right now, for about seven more minutes. It is traveling, the broadcaster tells me, at 75,000 miles an hour “breathlessly toward the end of mission.” What an achievement! What an impossible accomplishment.

And think of it. In six minutes it will transmit its last messages. Those will take less than an hour to transverse our solar system, far more distance than any human has ever experienced. They’ll run through the cold empty spaces, giving us its last gasp of knowledge, sending us information even after it burns and dies so far away from everyone who has ever cared about it.

Two minutes now.

It is plunging. “The spacecraft is losing the battle with the atmosphere.” It’s being pulled into its final throes. 30 seconds. It is about to be turned briefly into fire, and then nothingness.

“Signal from the spacecraft is gone, and in the next 30 seconds, so will be the spacecraft…I’m going to call this end of mission.”

And so it is over. The spacecraft is gone, even as its last lonely messages shoot across the 746 million miles that separate our worlds at their closest. Those 746 million miles that make the difference between our literature and nothingness, between everything you’ve ever known and the deadness of eternity. Between your memories and a planet that doesn’t care, doesn’t recognize, and doesn’t know anything you’ve ever felt.

But isn’t that exciting? In the smallness of our lives people sent a satellite to Saturn, looked at the seas of Titans, the gullies of an alien moon, the watery plumes from the south pole of Encedalus. We’ve learned more about the universe in the briefest candle of our time here than anyone in humanity’s short history.

So maybe there is hope. We’re short-minded and stupid and do dumb stuff all the time, and we seem to be rushing toward catastrophe. Maybe in a billion years the life that might yet develop on Encedalus will send a probe toward earth, or whatever name they’ll give it, plucked from their own shoaled mythologies, and maybe discover in the wreckage that there was once a civilization here.

Maybe they’ll see that we had weapons of fierce and terrifying power, and that we had covered our lands in plastic, and that we choked the seas. And maybe they’ll see that we built structures that touched the sky. Maybe they’ll see that we couldn’t sustain this wild gift we stumbled upon. But maybe they’ll see something else.

Maybe they’ll find a buried record of what humans accomplished even as we rushed toward our own end. Maybe they’ll see that brilliant, dedicated people created a small bleeping hero that touched their home somewhere in the distance of time, in the past that seemed dead to them. And they’ll understand that their place in the infinity of space is as small as ours, but also understand that, in a real sense, it is all-encompassing. It is all they have, and all they’ll ever have. And maybe that will change them.

Maybe we’ll briefly meet, ghosts across time, a fading signal rushing bravely through the darkness.

Maybe, this isn’t the end.

Enceladus Discoveries Demonstrate That Life (Almost Certainly) Exists


The caption as the NASA site reads, blandly and beautifully, “Color image of icy Enceladus.” It sounds like the beginning of a poem that somehow explains everything. Someone write it. 



Could there be life under the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

NASA announced on Thursday that its Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn has gathered new evidence that there’s a chemical reaction taking place under the moon’s icy surface that could provide conditions for life. They described their findings in the journal Science.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge.

Don’t let the last paragraph get you down. Thrill, instead, at the possibilities. And thrill, even more, at the certainties. Because while Enceladus might not have life, the last sentence contains within it the seeds of a glorious “yet”, and with that, the possibilities explode like the limitless universe.

Let’s just take Enceladus, and assume that its youth has left it so far lifeless. But the idea that life could develop there, given time, expands our perceptions in both directions. Think of the idea that there could have once been life on Mars, or even on Venus, even just the merest microbes that were entirely annihilated with the slightest shift in orbit.  Life developed over millions and billions of years, while the earth was lifeless, or as the first microbes emerged from a chemical sludge, and then disappeared. Entirely. Our centuries seem so vain compared to that eonic drama.

And then go forward: after we’ve wiped ourselves out and the earth starts to rebuild from our folly, maybe life will slowly bloom on Enceladus. It might not happen, but it might. It might spark to life and then fizzle out, unsuccessful. That has probably happened billions of times across the universe.

But the point is, it has happened. One of this blogs secondary yammering points has been that we’re past the point where any reasonable person could think there isn’t life outside of earth, or that there hasn’t been, or that there never will be. Mars once had water. Enceladus has the primary conditions for life. There are seven nearby planets that are the right distance from their star to contain life.  There are40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way.” Just the Milky Way! There are two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more things than can be contained in even our most outsized vanities.

The universe is far too big, and far too weird (look how weird Pluto is), to think we’re the only place this has happened. But that’s not so bad. We’re probably the only place where that weird chemical sludge whorled and zapped up the exact combinations that led to sequoias and dinosaurs and tree sloths and Tilda Swinton, and that’s awesome. We get to have Warren Zevon and playoff hockey. Neat!

None of this is to say that, given the size of the universe, and the certainty that we aren’t alone, that our problems are lessened. Because, functionally, we are alone. It’s not like any jerkass Enceladusian microbes are going to FedEx us a care package, much less a solution to our crippling frailties. The fact that we know that life certainly started in other places, even in our solar system, and was wiped out, a fate that will absolutely befall earth, should be enough to dim our self-destructiveness and work to make better the time we have. One would hope, anyway.

I’ve argued that since we are past the point where life in the universe can plausibly be doubted, even without definitive proof, something will slowly alter in our morals. It won’t happen overnight. It will be a generational thing, much like the Copernican “discoveries” began the slow erosion of Popish authority. Our perceptions of ourselves will change. And I think it could be for the better.

We might realize that far from being special, we’re lucky. We’re enormously lucky to be here, as a planet, as a species, and as individuals. Stretch back to the beginning of time and trace the events that led to your parents meeting. It’s impossible. So much could not have happened, and so much didn’t happen to other potential beings, other potential species. A wrong turn on a Sunday means your great-grandparents never chanced into each other or that you were just too far away from the sun to be warm, and so you’re a lifeless void.

It’s wild, these possibilities created by an endless universe. Maybe if we recognize that, if we recognize this glorious chance that lets us drink champagne with the ones we love, we won’t be so vainly self-destructive. If only we have time.

(Note: for a good scientific explanation of Enceladus, read Calla Cofield’s piece at Space.com)