Friday, September 15th, 2017, Spark Science and the Planetary Society held a public wake at the Shakedown in Bellingham, WA, to celebrate the life of the Cassini Mission — a 19-year space mission to study Saturn and its many moons.
This episode features the eulogies read by Planetary Society’s Director of Space Policy Casey Dreier, NASA scientist Melissa Rice, Author George Dyson and music by Scary Monster and the Super Creeps.
Enjoy the ride.
Image credit: NASA
Check out pictures of the wake on our Instagram page @sparkscience & Twitter @sparksciencenow
Click Here for Transcript
[? Music playing ?]
? This one’s for Gina
? Oh yeah, ahh
? Ooh yeah, ahh
? Ooh yeah, ahh
Regina DeGraaff: This is Regina Barber DeGraaff with Spark Science. Today’s show was recorded in honor of the late Cassini spacecraft on September 15th, 2017.
This event was hosted by the Shakedown in Bellingham, Washington and featured local David Bowie cover band, Scary Monsters and the Super Creeps.
Starting us off is audio in memory of Cassini, put together by NASA. I hope you enjoy the show.
[? Piano playing ?]
Narrator: On September 15th, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft would dive into Saturn, ending a 13 year tour of the ringed planet and its strange moons.
Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, after a seven year journey through the solar system.
Its first port of call was Titan, Saturn’s largest moon — a frigid world of nitrogen smog and dark, hydrocarbon lakes. Cassini released the Huygens probe to land on Titan. Parachuting through the moon’s smoggy atmosphere, Huygens sent back images of alien riverbeds, carved out of methane and water ice.
Our first touchdown on an alien moon.
Cassini returned to Titan over a hundred times, using the moon’s gravity as a slingshot to shift its orbit and weave a three-dimensional pattern through space.
Over hundreds of flybys, Cassini’s cameras dissolved Saturn’s majestic rings into grooves and gaps, bands and braids. For 13 years, Cassini joined the dance of Saturn’s 62 moons.
Scuffed marbles, chasing each other around a golden ring. The flattened moonlit pan clears a narrow tract through the rings. Potato-shaped Prometheus carves ripples in Saturn’s thin F Ring.
Sponge-like Hyperion tumbles chaotically through the void. And pale Iapetus sweeps its orbit clean. A ball of ice, dusted with black, and ridged with mountains.
But the most surprising moon of all was Enceladus, glistening with fresh snow. Its crinkled shell hides an ocean of water that might be hospitable to life. Geysers of salt water shoot from stretch marks near its south pole. Cassini flew through these plumes several times. Its sensors detected promising molecules, but they were not designed to look for life.
Our alien microbes hitching a ride in the briny spray? It will take a future spacecraft to find that answer.
Cassini arrived at Saturn in the depths of northern winter, with the North Pole in darkness. As a planet tipped downward, Saturn’s seasons slowly changed. Perfect lighting to study to the north polar hurricane, a six-sided storm that could swallow four Earths.
Some of Cassini’s orbits took it behind Saturn, an alien sunset before hours of darkness. Looking back past Saturn’s rings, Cassini even saw the distant Earth, the pinprick of blue light.
In April, the spacecraft swung close by Titan for the last time, letting the moon’s gravity pull it inward for the first of 22 dives inside Saturn’s rings. The grand finale, 22 chances to appear at Saturn’s cloud tops, study the pole, and look out at the rings from the inside.
But Cassini’s fuel is almost gone. Its watch is ending after 20 years in space. To keep the lakes of Titan and the snow of Enceladus untouched by any earthly microbes, the spacecraft must be destroyed.
On September 15th, Cassini will make its final dive, piercing Saturn’s clouds at over 70,000 miles an hour, straining to remain upright as it sends its final data back to Earth. Saturn’s butterscotch clouds will burn and scatter it into a wisp of alien atoms, leaving nary a ruffle nor a burp to show for it — just a brief meteor flash, a streak of light, that no eyes that we know of may ever see.
Casey Dreier: Thank you all so much for coming. My name is Casey Dreier. I am the director of space policy for the Planetary Society. It’s a global organization non-profit promoting space science and exploration. I’m based here in Bellingham. Planetary Society is global. There’s a bunch of cool stuff for free you can grab on the table. Don’t take the Mars Rover model please. That is not to be taken.
There’s also a signup letter, a newsletter I encourage you to sign up for to follow all the space news and other things.
I wanna thank the Shakedown for helping us put on this event to celebrate the life and times of Cassini.
I wanna also thank Western Washington University, who ponied up the cash to print these beautiful pictures of Cassius that is taken of Saturn and its moons. And these will be — I think for the month and a half will be presented at Casa Que Pasa. And I wanna thank them too for hosting those. So go get a burrito and look at these pictures.
So alright. Well, tonight we’re going to have some eulogies talking about the Cassini Mission. And I’m gonna go first. And then we have a few other people who have committed to speak a eulogy of a few things here. We see, we have a closed casket for Cassini since we don’t have the body. [Audience laughing]
We have, again, kind of a baby picture of Cassini here. [Audience laughing] You can give it — I love that picture cause it shows the size of Cassini. Cassini was a big spacecraft. It was the size of a school bus. And it was just a spectacular, unique science mission.
And as someone who has — so I’m 35 years old. I know I’m not the oldest person here, but not the youngest either. And I know I’ve been alive long enough — and I also do this professionally. I know I’ve been alive long enough that these types of missions do not happen every day. They do not even happen every decade.
Cassini was a twinkle in the eye of the scientists and engineers who first thought of a mission to go orbit Saturn in the summer of 1982. That is the first time a meeting happened between NASA and the European Space Agency to talk about what they could collaborate together to do to explore the solar system.
I was not born yet. I would be born later that year. But that was the first discussion that they had. And at the end of this discussion, they produced a report. And they said one of the most important places to explore in our solar system based on what they had seen from the flybys of the Voyager spacecraft that had just finished going past Saturn earlier that year, that Saturn itself — its rings, but also its moon Titan, which is the size of mercury — was one of the most compelling and enigmatic and important scientific destinations in the entire solar system that would be worth working together for.
Flash forward to when I was five years old — sorry, four and a half years old in 1986. The very first official step toward collaboration began between ESA, the European Space Agency, and NASA. Four years after that first report, the two space agencies decided to work together to explore the solar system. And they decided that Saturn and Titan would be the place to do it.
A year and a half, almost two years later, they came out with the official, they called it “phase A study,” which is the detailed — it is a 400 page behemoth that detailed how they would explore Saturn, that they would land a probe on the moon Titan, and here’s the spacecraft would have to look like to do that.
You can look at this online. We actually link to it on a page at the Planetary Society website. That mission booklet basically described Cassini. It was the, essentially, the baby picture of Cassini before it even existed in physical form. That was when I was six years old, was when they decided to say — and they said, “Right, we can do this. This is a technical thing. We can do this mission.”
From 1988 through 1997, NASA and the European Space Agency struggled every year to build and continue to pay for a mission that grew in cost and complexity. The mission was nearly cancelled in 1994 due to budget cuts.
So for 10 years, from the point where they figured out how to make it to the point where it was sitting on the launch pad. In 1997, after surviving all of these — these are the most dangerous time in a sense to be a spacecraft, is when you’re being built, cause we haven’t been launched into space yet so someone could cut your budget at any time.
In 1997, it sat on Saturn Centaur rocket and it launched into space to never come back to Earth. And that was only the beginning of its actual journey. Seven years it took. Rockets, we don’t have rockets powerful enough to send things directly to Saturn. That’s how far away it is. And so, from the period where I left high school, went to college, and graduated from college, Cassini was traveling from the Earth to Saturn, seeing empty space.
Now it wasn’t until the summer of 2004 that Cassini finally reached its destination that its designers and scientists had hoped it would reach 22 years earlier in 1982 in that very first meeting.
These types of missions, and Cassini in particular, is a generation mission. Once in a generation will we see something this big, this ambitious, and this capable happen in space, and particularly with space science.
2004, its mission was originally four years. Obviously it lasted beyond that because we’re standing here today. But it spent the next 12-13 years exploring the Saturn system, as you can see from these pictures, at a level of detail and a level of commitment that we have never as a species of humanity done in our entire lives.
All of us here in that room — in this room, sorry — have been alive for a revolution in humanity’s understanding of this planet and its moons. We should feel so fortunate and just be so happy to be experiencing pure discovery that we had every day with this Cassini spacecraft. It is a treasure — I guess I should say it was a treasure.
Because things end, Cassini only had so much fuel in it, and rather than risk — the infinitesimal risk that a stray microbe had hitched a ride on Cassini and somehow survived through seven years of travel to Saturn and 13 years of orbiting around the planet — just in case that microbe had existed, survived, and in who knows how long the space craft would’ve been orbit, could’ve potentially crashed into the moon of Titan — that’s a hydrocarbon soup, or the icy moon Enceladus, which was revealed to have an ocean’s worth of liquid water underneath its shell.
A moon that is so small and so far away from the sun. It has no business having liquid water on it — shoots this liquid water out into space. We never would’ve known that without Cassini. Cassini flew through those plumes. And rather than risk contaminating that potentially habitable environment, we decided — NASA decided to purposefully crash Cassini into the atmosphere of Saturn on the off-chance that we would harm life that we don’t even know if it exists.
These types of decisions and these types of missions are what gives me hope in humanity, and what gives me faith in the better [inaudible] of our nature — that we are still such a compassionate, curious, and capable species. That we will spend our treasure and we will spend our time and we will spend the best minds of a generation committed to life that may or may not exist. That is something to be proud of a species, and something to be proud of for you, Cassini.
So I wanna say a toast to Cassini. Everybody, let’s say cheers to that.
[? Scary Monsters and the Super Creeps singing Golden Years ?]
? Golden years, gold whop whop whop
? Golden years, gold whop whop whop
? Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel
? Come get up my baby
? In walked luck and you looked in time
? Never look back, walk tall, act fine
Casey Dreier: Alright, for our next eulogy, we have Dr. Regina Barber DeGraaff who teaches physics and astronomy up at Western Washington University. Dr. Barber DeGraaff.
Regina DeGraaff: I wanted to add what Casey said about this idea of — you know, Cassini spanned your lifetime, and for me, I kinda see Cassini as spanning my career.
This mission has been in my mind and on my radar and in my life since I started college. So I grew up 20 miles north of here in Lynden, Washington. And I did Running Start, and I remember my first year at Running Start was 1997. And that is the year Cassini was launched.
And I remember knowing about it. I was one of those really nerdy kids at 16 who had subscription to Astronomy magazine, who would like read it, and go to class, and read it in-between classes. And I remember getting promotional stickers for Cassini’s mission, knowing about it, and just being very very intrigued and really enchanted by this idea that we would be able to visit moons.
At the time, I was very obsessed with Jupiter’s moons. I think some of us may know about Europa and Io and all these moons that were very active, and had — almost seemed like worlds of their own.
And I remember knowing that Cassini would eventually send something to a moon — another world, like Titan. I didn’t know too much about Enceladus at the time. And so, that started.
And I also remember starting at Western Washington University in 1999, and having that scare. I don’t know if many of you remember that, but because Cassini had plutonium as its energy source, there was this — a lot of protests. And it was gonna sling by, you know, Venus and then Cassini’s mission was gonna come by Earth. And many people were scared it was gonna crash and people were gonna die. It did not. It went on, it was fine.
And it went to Saturn in 2004. And I was finishing up my first graduate degree. And I remember Huygens landed in 2005, and that’s when I received my first graduate degree. And it very much felt like this was my life. So it’s very sad. You know, when we go to funerals and we go to wakes, we talk about how that person affected our lives. And Cassini affected my life in that way, as my career to become an astrophysicist.
So it started taking data in 2004. It gave us such great information in 2005. And then it just kept on going. It was supposed to stop when Obama was elected, but it just kept on going. And it kept on going, and I came back to Western, and I finished by PhD, and it was still going. And it’s kinda sad. I’m a little sad that it’s over now, but I really feel that it’s really done so much good for our community, so much good for humanity, for science.
And I just — it’s very short. I just wanna say that Cassini, you’ll be missed by me, and by all of us. But you did a good job and you had a good run. So I wanna raise a glass to Cassini. Thank you for all your work.
[? Scary Monsters and the Super Creeps singing Modern Love ?]
? I know when to go out
? I know when to stay in
? Get things done
? Well I catch the paper boy
? But things don’t really change
? I’m standing in the wind
? But I never wave bye-bye
? But I try, I try
Casey Dreier: Our next eulogist is Dr. Melissa Rice. She is a professor of planetary science here at Western Washington University. Let’s welcome Dr. Rice.
Melissa Rice: Well, Cassini. I wish I knew you better. Kind of reminds me of when my great aunt Martha died, who was somebody I was always in periphery of during my life, somebody who was always a presence through stories that others told, who I always said I would get to know better somebody, until she passed before her time. And I realized I was never able to have that personal interaction with her.
So Cassini, you were always in the periphery of my career. I’m a planetary scientist, but my planet is Mars. And I’ve spent my career telling myself that I would branch out, telling myself that Enceladus was fascinating, and Titan was where I would go next, and that I will join the Cassini mission at some point soon. But now, Cassini is gone and all my stories about Cassini are now second hand.
So, lemme tell you some stories that others have told me, that I have been in the periphery of. When Cassini — well lemme back up — when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what I was interested, being vaguely interested in astronomy and trying to narrow that down to planets or black holes or pulsars, my undergraduate advisor was on the Cassini team.
Richard French studied ring particle dynamics in Saturn’s rings. And I was interested in planetary science. I knew that the Mars Rovers and studying the possibility of life on Mars was something I wanted to do in my career. So when Dr. French offered me a position at his research lab studying ring particle dynamics, I kinda said, “That sounds boring.” That’s a bunch of pieces of ice and rocks smashing into each other, orbiting around. I wanna study a surface that has the possibility for life.
And so I turned my back on Cassini at that point. And then when I went to graduate school, I was at Cornell University in 2006, when many of the first amazing discoveries from Cassini were being made. The Huygens probe had just landed. The plumes on Enceladus had just been discovered. The first images of Iapetus showed this round world that was half black, half white, with a ridge of mountains around its equator — a perfect ridge.
And the head of the imaging team, Carolyn Porco, came to Cornell to give a talk. And I found myself coming to work early one morning awkwardly in the elevator alone with Carolyn Porco. And I said, “Ooh here’s my chance. What do I get to ask the woman who is the first person to see all these images coming down from Saturn?”
And I asked her, “What’s the deal with that ridge of mountains around the equator of Iapetus?” And she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know. I guess it’s a walnut.” [Applause]
And we still don’t have much of a better answer for that. You know, I say some BS in my planetary geology class about possibly an equatorial impact, but we really don’t have a sound geologic answer, still. We are going to be solving the mysteries of Cassini for decades to come.
When I was at Cornell, I met people who had been in the room when the first data was downlinked from the Huygens probe after it had landed. And if we can show the previous slide, a handwritten scroll. [Audience laughing]
This is a betting pool that some of my colleagues had made about what the surface of Titan was going to be like. And I love this because — well first of all, somebody put their money on “eaten.” But there are also two people who seriously thought “dead on arrival,” who thought that the Huygens lander had less of a chance of making it than of actually learning what the surface of Titan was like.
And the other folks, you know, they’re pretty evenly distributed. What this shows to me is that we had no idea. Some people thought it was going to be an icy surface. Some people thought it would be liquid. We might land on a lake on Titan. Some people thought we would land on tar, a kind of hydrocarbon slush.
And it turns out, next slide please, that as Huygens was landing, we got these images of a surface of mountain ranges. It looks kind of Earth-like. I’ve seen mountain ranges like this, not dissimilar from this, in the north Cascades. Except the difference here is these mountains are not made of rock. They’re made of ice.
This is the real image from Huygens after landing on the surface. And this is a solid surface. You can see that there’s sand grains, that there are rounded pebbles. Each of those rocks in the foreground, about the size of a fist. And those rocks aren’t really rocks. Those are ice cubes that have been transported in rivers of liquid methane and ethane, and have been rounded through the same processes that river rocks round on the Earth, except these are ice rocks flowing through hydrocarbon rivers. So, a pretty amazing first image.
And for that betting pool, nobody really got it right. Yes, there is ice on this surface, but it wasn’t exactly a hard surface. It wasn’t exactly a liquid surface. The way my colleagues have described it to me is that it’s a “cre?me bru?le?e-like surface.”
The accelerometers on Huygens as it landed were able to distinguish between a hard surface and a squishy surface. And what the data showed was that it was initially hard, but then squishy. Kind of like breaking through a bit of an icy crust into a kind of slushy subsurface.
Next image just shows an artist rendition of what Huygens looked like when it was there on the ground. This is not a real image, but an artist conception of what our human footprint on the moon Titan looks like.
So I never got a chance to join the Cassini team, to study the radar images that were mapping the presence of lakes and rivers across the surface of Titan. Those were professional aspirations of mine that, now that Cassini is gone, will have to go unfulfilled. But, just like with great aunt Martha, I will flip through the photo albums and I will think of what could’ve been.
So to that, here’s to you Cassini. We all wish we had known you better.
[? Scary Monsters and the Super Creeps singing Under Pressure ?]
? Under pressure that burns a building down
? Splits a family in two
? Puts people on streets
? Um ba ba be
? Um ba ba be
? Ee da day day
Casey Dreier: Alright, we have one final scheduled eulogist who is George Dyson. We’re very happy to have him here today. George Dyson is a science historian and writer. He also apparently owns the former Dick’s Bar, I think if I’ve got that right. One of his books is Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship, and he’s written many other things. So let’s please welcome George Dyson.
George Dyson: Thank you. It’s great to be here. And the first thing I wanna say is sort of a happy thought, that Cassini is dead, but the data live on. And we’re gonna have that data for a very long time.
And I have a technical point that in a strange way, Saturn itself is what got us there because it was a study of the mystery of Saturn rings that led to the original theorem on the equipartition of energy, which is the fact that if you just let the universe run a long enough time, the small objects will gain higher velocity and the larger objects are slow. But it was actually by wondering why Saturn had these rings that that was first discovered.
So on a personal note, I think I’m probably the only person in the room who remembers Sputnik going up. So I was four years old when my dad took me out in the backyard, woke me up at a terrible time of night to see the Russian Sputnik going by. And that was very exciting.
The next year, my father disappeared. So in 1958, he just started going to California. And then finally, when I was six years old, he was allowed by the government to tell me what he was doing.
And what he was doing, he was working with a guy who was sort of my adopted uncle, Uncle Ted Taylor. And they were building a spaceship to go to Mars. They were gonna take 100 people to Mars. And they got their money from ARPA.
They went into ARPA and ARPA wrote them a check for $999,750 cause over a million took two signatures. They were on their way. This was before NASA. So NASA got started later in 1958.
And they were serious about going to Mars. Then my father did the calculations and realized that well if they’re actually going to Mars with the same amount of fuel, they could go to Saturn if they could get propellant on Saturn. And so they looked very carefully at what little was known about Saturn at the time. Where could they get propellant? And they decided the best place to get propellant was Enceladus.
So there we go and here we are all these years — and that was my dream as a child when I was told that, “Oh we’re gonna go Saturn.” Ted was gonna take his children along. He had four kids.
And here, finally, you know, September 15th, 2017, we got there. And I’m glad to have just lived that long. Thank you.
Here’s to Cassini.
[? Scary Monsters and the Super Creeps singing Changes ?]
? Turn and face the strange
? Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
? Turn and face the strange
? Where’s your shame?
? You’ve left us up to our necks in it
? Time may change me
? But I can’t trace time
Casey Dreier: When I said this was a generation mission, that is really true. And NASA, there’s nothing official coming up to go to Saturn. NASA’s looking at options, but nothing has been committed to.
So we’ve had one spacecraft in the entire record of human history orbit Saturn. That was Cassini. Any other mission to go there, the earliest, if everything goes right, the earliest it would get to Saturn would be 2034, so 17 years from now. And that’s if NASA selects a new mission. So keep that in mind when you think about how rare Cassini is.
This is something some of us may not live to see again, or we can eat our vegetables and make sure that we’ll see the next one. [Audience laughing]
But these things are rare. There’s a lot of space in space, right? It takes a long time and it’s hard to make these things. So we can appreciate what we’re seeing tonight. Celebrate this mission. And there’s hope and work. And this what I do at the Society, is try to make sure that these missions keep coming and that we have a future in space exploration.
[? Robert Picardo singing Le Cassini Opera ?]
? Goodbye Cassini, Your mission’s fini
? Bravo Cassini, have some linguini
? You showed us Saturn’s rings, and lots of pretty things
? Huygens probe took a dive, early 2005
? Landed on Titan, it was excitin’
? Your mission of all failed to surprise
? Dazzled our eyes
? Now dive to Saturn, vaporize
Regina DeGraaff: Thanks for joining us. If you missed any of the show, go to our website, SparkScienceNow.com. Spark Science is produced in collaboration with KMRE Spark Radio and Western Washington University. If there’s a science idea you’re curious about, send us a message on Twitter or Facebook at SparkScienceNow.
Today’s episode was recorded by KMRE at the Shakedown in Bellingham, Washington. Our producer today is Robert Clark. The engineer for today’s show is Natalie Moore. Our featured music came from Scary Monsters and the Super Creeps, recorded on location.
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