Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cassini Mission to Saturn Gets Seven Year Extension

America's manned spaceflight program might be in complete disarray, but NASA's robotic explorations of the Solar System continue to produce tremendous results in terms of scientific information. Yesterday, the tremendously good news that the Cassini mission to Saturn had been extended for seven years was revealed, and this is certainly cause for celebration.

The Cassini mission is one of the feathers in the cap of America's space program, and will go down in history along with other robotic missions like Viking, Voyager, and Galileo for contributing to the knowledge of humanity and furthering our understanding of the Solar System. Launched in 1997 and arriving in orbit around Saturn in 2004, the probe has been exploring Saturn and its family of moons for the past several years, sending back massive quantities of information that is currently causing scientists to rewrite the textbooks not just on Saturn but on the entire Solar System.

Cassini is still operating perfectly, and NASA made a very sensible decision in renewing the mission for an additional seven years. The additional cost is very small, and the reward in additional scientific information is certain to be vast. The mysterious moon Titan holds many secrets yet to be unraveled, although Cassini has flown past it many times and deployed onto its surface the descent probe Huygens, designed by the European Space Agency. Cassini has also flown past the equally enigmatic moon of Enceladus several times, but we are only just beginning to understand this strange little world. And, of course, Saturn itself, despite centuries of study, is still yet to be fully understood. We are fortunate indeed to already have a robot emissary in orbit in the Saturnian system, and NASA made a very wise decision in extending its mission.

Thomas Jefferson's heart would quicken in excitement if he could be alive to hear about this. A man who always considered himself a scientist before a politician, he would have considered the exploration of Saturn and its moons far more interesting and important than debates about healthcare or arguments about our policy towards Iran. If he could choose only one magazine subscription today, he would be far more likely to choose Scientific American over Newsweek.

Raise a glass to Cassini, and to the fact that it will continue to explore Saturn and its moons for seven more glorious years.

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