We earthlings were in for quite a treat today when the spacecraft, Cassini, began sending down images of the spaces between Saturn and its rings. I got goosebumps yesterday, listening to the BBC news on my drive back from town. The commentator described how Cassini had gone dark for her first dive between the rings, because she needed to use the 13 foot antenna as a shield for protection against ice and rocks. She’s been out there in space for 20 years now, and this was the first of 22 dives she’s programmed to make between Saturn’s rings. Nobody knew for sure if she’d make it. These are the rings we saw as mere illustrations in textbooks, when I was a child, yet just before 3:00 a.m. this morning, Cassini made contact with NASA’s Deep Space Network out there in the Mojave Desert, and began beaming images of whorls of swirling clouds, and stars of light, which reminded me of this photo I took last week, of our own earthbound lake.
I can’t be certain, but I swear the reporter referred to Cassini as “she”. Maybe it was “it”, but when the reporter talked about how Cassini will make a “death plunge” on September 15th, if she doesn’t explode before then, the BBC commentator definitely said it would be a “bittersweet moment to say goodbye”. Cassini has been programmed all along to explode into fiery flames, because they can’t risk it crashing and contaminating Saturn’s moons, and the potential “life” they now know could possibly be present there. I found a live countdown clock online, so you can follow the remaining time until Cassini’s demise.
“There’s a sense of loss,” Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL, said earlier this month at a NASA press conference. “We, humankind, have been at Saturn for 13 years. You can get up in the morning, get the weather report, see what the images look like…we are connected, and we’ve connected the entire planet. That’s going to go away…and unfortunately, there’s not a substitute for that for some time.”
A week or so ago, after I checked my morning weather report, there was a posting of my favorite Cassini photo. Framed between Saturn’s rings, way out in the dark of outer space, alone, was a tiny star– the Earth. To see ourselves in relationship to the cosmos is fundamentally a spiritual experience– I read there are nine million Twitter followers of Cassini. Humankind has always looked to the celestial stars overhead to try and make some sense of a grand scheme we cannot comprehend. Thank you, Cassini, for making me feel connected this morning. May the Force be with you.