Wednesday 13 September 2017

Cassini. So long and thanks for all the pics

Recently I stumbled upon an amazing documentary called The Farthest about the Voyager spacecraft and their grand tour of the solar system. You know the hub-hub caused as New Horizons flung past Pluto and we got to see that proto-planet close up for the first time? Voyager did that with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. With two spacecraft shot out during a convenient syzygy.

It was an amazing tale, even if you geek out to astronomy quite the way I do. I grew up being rather aware of space and the various spacecraft being sent far beyond our world. One of few, beyond the short news cycles:

I suspect there will be another spike for Cassini over the next week, since it crashes into Saturn on Friday night, twelve years after it's companion Huygens decended onto Saturn's moon, Titan.

I perceived Voyager through the lens of a growing boy. Cassini I have appreciated while I've grown as, and I'll use this term today, a software engineer. One involved with project management.

Some major events on the Cassini timeline paired with my life events:
- mission conceived when I was a toddler
- mission approved when I was in primary school
- rocket launched after I learned to drive
- (as the IT industry scrambled over Y2k, the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost due to a feet-metres calculation error. Cassini approaches the most massive planet in the solar system)
- probes flew by Jupiter when I left started my first programming job
- probes arrived at Saturn when HTMLDB was born
- huygens descended Titan soon after arrival, floated through the thick nitrogen haze and landed on a lake strewn surface
- Cassini conducted most of it's science operations during my APEX career (to date)
- and now it's about to be scuttled into the clouds of Saturn

I've been reading about Cassini science for a long time, enjoying stunning photos as Cassini loops around the Saturnian system, and learning from from this project during my entire programming career.

This is quite possibly one of my favourite images from space of all time. Of all time. Eat it, Kanye.
Titan's Haze PIA07774
I find crescents poetic; interesting information can be garnered from such perspectives; the atmospheric haze; the exotic colours; the distance involved; the engineering required; the timing.

I stand in completer awe of the planning, project management, engineering, communications, politics, and pure passion that has been involved in making this one of the most successful multi-decade projects in humanity's history.

That's a mighty statement, but I believe it shares space with some undeniably society changing projects across the ages. Multiple nations were involved - NASA built Cassini while ESA built the Huygens probes that landed successfully on Titan soon after arrival.

Titan's surface PIA07232
All this while communicating information back to Earth with a 70 minute communication lag.
With 1990's technology.
And this is the sort of project that can inspire the future generation of STEM students. And it's not alone, there are more amazing projects on that way destined to keep doing so.

What can replace this satiation? Hubble is aging, and next year NASA will launch a telescope that makes Hubble look small, and will be the one to stun us with new information for years to come, no doubt related to exoplanets as it studies the infrared spectrum it will see while hiding in the Earth's shadow, 1.5 million kms away.  No corrective lens surgery from charismatic spacemen for this one..

Hubble vs JWST
Not only that, the James Webb Space Telescope reminds me a little of a star destroyer from Star Wars.

JWST. Bringing sexy back for telescopes
Space exploration is a nett gain for humanity. If you're not convinced by that statement, listen to this interview with David Grinspoon, and pay attention when he describes the lessons learned about CFCs while studying Venus, or the concept of nuclear winter while observing dust storms on Mars.

But back to Cassini.

Do yourself a favour. Set some time aside and let Phil Plait's passionate & informative writing guide you through the journey, and use a big screen:

NASA/JPL also have a great hall of fame.

To get a sense of the now, I've been watching related Twitter feeds over this past week, and I feel for all the people involved in the Cassini/Huygens project.

Expecting tears? Heck, I shed a tear for you.
Need humour? Check out this interaction between the dude with the mohawk, Bobak Ferdowsi and Sarcastic Rover. Yep, that's a thing, and it's a great feed. Need to believe scientists can be more than just boffins, here, same guy.
And I've just discovered Australia's geographical location will be handy again to receive the final communications #CassiniAus

Stand proud, Cassini team, and thanks for all the pics.


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