Cassini: The End of a Dream Mission

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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is completing an epic journey around Saturn. It has skimmed the cloud tops of the planet, swung by all of its major moons, and took innumerable fantastic images of the grandest sight in the solar system: the breathtakingly beautiful rings of Saturn.

For the past 20 years I have been traveling alongside it. Of course I’m not actually a passenger on the mission that rocketed off Earth in 1997 and has been circling around Saturn since 2004. But a boy can dream.

Thanks to Cassini’s cameras, and the continuous updates NASA posts on their websites, I am seeing what it sees and discovering what it discovers. It has excited my imagination so much that, from time to time, I lose myself in a daydream where I am flying around the rings of Saturn with Cassini. Through Cassini’s images I feel, sometimes, as if I am there.

Cassini Envy

When I was ten years old and saw pictures of the ringed planet Saturn taken by the Voyager spacecrafts, I became inspired: I vowed that someday (when I grew up) I would fly to Saturn and ride my bike around those rings. I didn’t want to be an astronomer back then. I wanted to be an adventurer. My ten-year old self dreamed of visiting far off lands, and outer space was the farthest thing I could think of.

So when Cassini reached Saturn after 7 years in space, flew tantalizingly close to the rings, put on the breaks, and started orbiting Saturn I was like a kid again. The adult inside me reveled, “We actually did that? Go NASA!” The kid inside me found a dream come true.

For the next 13 years Cassini shared close-up pictures of the planet, rings, and moons with such incredible detail. If you ever want to waste a good half-hour at work, just search through Cassini pictures. You’ll swear they were fake. But they are all real. Saturn is real and it is spectacular.

Saturn’s rings stretch over 200,000 miles in length yet, in some places, are only a fragile 30 feet thick. Saturn has a moon named Titan with liquid methane seas, a moon named Mimas that looks suspiciously like the Death Star from Star Wars movies, and another moon named Enceladus that has geysers of water that fly so far into space that they leave another ring around Saturn. Am I dreaming? No this is a real place. And we have seen it up close and personal.

The End of the Road

But all good journeys come to an end. After 20 years in space Cassini is out of fuel. Over the past few months the little spacecraft has performed some final, death-defying plunges through the gaps between the rings in order to unlock more secrets to the large planet. But on its final pass on September 15, Cassini will crash into Saturn and become one with the planet.

I can’t help but feel a little sad. Can’t it go around Saturn one more time? Can’t keep it going for one more year? Unfortunately this is the end of the dream. But we’ll have so many memories and so many beautiful pictures. The 10-year old inside me thanks you for the ride. Thank you Cassini for taking me with you.

Dean Regas is the Outreach Astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory, co-host of PBS’ syndicated astronomy program Star Gazers, and author of the book Facts From Space! He can be reached at:

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