Weekly Column: Cassini probe helps us look into the future

This Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017 image made available by NASA on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 shows the northern hemisphere of Saturn as seen from the Cassini spacecraft on its descent towards the planet. The probe disintegrated in the skies above the Saturn early Friday after a 20-year mission. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via AP)

Last Friday, Sept. 15, the Cassini Probe ended it’s nearly 20-year long mission exploring Saturn by entering the planet’s atmosphere, effectively destroying it. Throughout the years that Cassini was active, it consistently and reliably provided Earth with information about Saturn and its moons, and although the spacecraft is now gone, its legacy will continue to show the importance and amazement of space exploration. With the future of NASA currently unknown under President Trump, it is important to take this “end of an era” to reflect on the huge successes and failures that NASA endured with the Cassini spacecraft and to learn from its history to improve upon our future endeavors into space.

As with most of of NASA’s projects, the Cassini-Huygens probe has a long history and faced many struggles even before its journey into space began. From the beginning when Cassini was first proposed in the 1980s, it was not well received. Even before it got off the ground it had to go through budget cuts, be remodeled and reworked countless times, and confront protesters that did not approve of its use of plutonium-238 as a fuel source. (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/09/cassini-grand-finale/539850/) However, despite the fear that the launch would spread radioactive material across the world, the Cassini mission prevailed and brought with it one of the most successful missions that NASA has ever funded.

The Cassini mission left Earth in 1997; however it did not actually reach Saturn until 2004. Once it did eventually reach its destination, it was not accompanied by any of the problems or difficulties as the scientists had prepared for. In fact, the Cassini probe worked perfectly from day one. It worked so perfectly that when the mission was supposed to end in 2008, it was extended until 2010, and then extended again in 2010 until its fuel supply depleted (https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/science/overview/). While the information collected from Saturn was only supposed to last for four years, in total it lasted for more than 17 years. From this project, NASA has learned more than they ever thought possible about Saturn and two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus.

It is important to remember that despite all of the criticism and fears that were once had regarding the Cassini probe, this mission was without a doubt a success. Without this mission, we would not know that Saturn’s moons have shot out geysers of water and contain other elements of life, nor would we know that they contain lakes of liquid methane and are a proper model for an “alien environment.” (http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/09/20/552076114/cassini-s-spectacular-legacy-and-a-nod-to-the-future) The information that the Cassini probe has taught us is an invaluable asset to the world’s scientists, and further provides us with a reminder of how NASA continues to fulfill its calling of exploring and learning as much as we can about space.

Given NASA’s uncertain future under the Trump administration, it is important now more than ever to remember what NASA has offered and continues to offer to our country. While the program without a doubt helps to further our knowledge of the way our planet works in tandem with others, it is also important to remember the camaraderie that can be found within the prospect of space exploration. While neither Trump nor his staff have yet given a definitive statement regarding what they plan to do with the space program, it has been shown that they seem to favor deep space exploration, including a possible return to the moon or progress in the journey to Mars. As was seen with the Cassini spacecraft, while these missions may not always be supported by all at first, they provide a wealth of information to our world about the currently unknown, and do eventually succeed in uniting the people in our country, which we could desperately use. By taking a page out of Cassini’s book, we must look to the future of space exploration and see that these unexplored territories have so much more to offer than just interesting pictures of planets.

While the Cassini probe may now be gone, the multitude of knowledge and the legacy it left behind will live on. From the Cassini mission we learned as a country and as a space program that perseverance can help achieve great things, and that even when we prepare for every problem in the book, occasionally things go much better than intended. We must use these positive experiences gained by Cassini to look into the future of our space program and appreciate what more the galaxy has to offer, so that maybe we can continue to appreciate it in the years to come.

Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.