Saturday

November 18th, 2017

Insight

Farewell from Cassini

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Sept. 19, 2017

If you're reading this message, there's no need to burn it. For it and I have already been burned beyond recognition. It was good knowing you and a great trip while it lasted. I danced through the sparkling rings of you earthlings' neighboring planet, the sixth one from the star you call the sun, as if there were only one in all the universe. What an arrogant, self-centered species, Homo sapiens, though one not without its coquettish charms. I gave you a whole new view of splendiferous Saturn, including its two moons that might harbor the greatest miracle of all -- life. You all are going to miss me now that I'm gone.

I had a birthday coming up, but I won't be able to celebrate it in the high style to which I'd become accustomed during my cosmic jaunts. For it was on Oct. 15, 1997, according to your primitive calendar, that I began my billion-mile jaunt and was named for the Italian astronomer who discovered four of Saturn's moons and a strange gap in its fluorescent rings. I had but a single passenger aboard my flight -- the Huygens lander constructed by the European Space Agency and named for the Dutch stargazer who first noticed and noted Saturn's moon Titan.

The little lander and I reached Saturn's orbit seven years after launch. Several months later the lander peeled off and came to rest on the shore of one of Titan's lakes of liquid methane. It was your species' first touchdown on the outer edges of your little solar system. Oh, how time flies when you're not having much fun but duty is calling and there's information to be collected.

But I can't complain about the flight -- or anything else for that matter. Not anymore. Though we could have used a flight attendant or two of attractive mien, one with tentacles not quite so long and elastic or suction cups not quite so loud. But everything worked, the flight was all smooth sailing, the various instruments and assorted gadgets were on the money, and we even discovered a 5,000-mile hurricane belt at the planet's southern pole. Not to mention the six-sided storm raging around Saturn's north pole. Florida and Texas, you ain't got nothin' on us space voyagers and voyeurs.

It turns out that Saturn's rings have a lot of texture in all three of the planet's geometric dimensions and include a mountain range as big as the Rockies. While we were at it, we found the explanation for Saturn moon Iapetus sporting black-and-white Oreo-like colors, and like any other tourist I sent you a snapshot of the big bulge around its equator, like middle-aged spread.

Mystery upon mystery was solved to the usual little effect, raising even more mysteries to be explored and raising the prospect of even more scientific papers to be written on the taxpayer's dollar. By now some 4,000 academic papers have been written based on the 635 gigabytes of information I picked up during my almost 300 orbits of Saturn. It would all be enough to keep my poor head spinning if I still had one.

Most intriguing was what I discovered about Saturn's oceanic moons. In the smog surrounding Titan, I detected molecular particles that could have biological potential for the future of that methane-rich planet.

While racing past its frosty smog-covered moon Enceladus, I noticed signs of a subterranean ocean of precious life-giving water, complete with geysers spewing up here, there and everywhere. As in some vast Yellowstone Interplanetary Park free of other tourists. Here were the very building blocks of life as your species knows it. Your descendants will doubtless discover ever more sights and sounds and visions as their unending explorations continue.

"There's this tremendous legacy," to quote Linda Spilker, a government scientist who has been on my cosmic trail for nearly two decades now. She says I've completely rewritten the old and now outdated textbooks. Which, come to think, is the very object of scientific study -- to turn yesterday's solemn "truths" into today's fables now seen through.

In the end, there is no end to science, but just another new page to be turned, another new chapter to be opened in your species' voluminous investigations. I wish you all luck and serendipitous successes.

Well, goodbye. I hate to have left. Because this final trip of mine has been the end of your old once peripatetic friend the spacecraft.

--Cassini

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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