By Elizabeth Peterson, Social Media & Marketing Manager at Purch
On Friday (Sept. 15), NASA’s Cassini space probe will go where no spacecraft has gone before: into the upper atmosphere of Saturn. And it’s not coming back.
The spacecraft’s final descent to the ringed planet is the last awe-inspiring maneuver of a probe that has spent two decades studying Saturn, its rings and its many moons. Launched in 1997 and arriving in orbit around Saturn in 2004, the end of the Cassini mission raises a host of questions for Earthlings — particularly, why are scientists allowing a $3 billion mission to crash and burn? And what have we learned in the years that Cassini spent at Saturn, both about this awesome planet and the nature of space exploration?
To answer these questions (and many others), we sat down with Tariq Malik, managing editor at Purch’s Space.com, whose tenure is almost as long as the Cassini mission itself at 16 years and counting.
Everyone is talking about the Cassini mission this week, particularly its imminent demise. But before we discuss the spacecraft’s death, can you tell us a little about its life? What were some of the highlights of the mission?
It’s been a weird ride all the way through — from the amazing images that Cassini has taken to everything it’s found up there. It found evidence of an ocean on the Saturn moon Enceladus, as well as geysers that erupt from that moon. It delivered the European Huygensspacecraft to land on the surface of Titan —the first time any spacecraft has ever landed beyond Mars — and it stayed in orbit around Titan, which is the only moon in our solar system with a thick atmosphere, like that of Earth.
Cassini also flew by Mimas — that’s the Saturn moon that looks like the Death Star — and took amazing photos. It got an awesome look at the rings of Saturn and studied what they’re made of, how they’re shaped by the moons and the planet itself. It took a picture of Earth from the rings to show where we are. And it found other weird stuff, like these hexagon shapes at the north and south poles of Saturn that are vortex storms that NASA can’t really explain.
The mission has done a lot to open our eyes on how giant gas planets like Saturn form and how life could exist beyond Earth on places like Titan, where there are seas of methane on the surface, or Enceladus, where there’s water.
It sounds like Cassini has done some impressive things, but what makes this mission stand out compared to other NASA missions?
This was the first major expedition to study Saturn for years and give us an idea of how a planet like that, with these giant rings, works. NASA had already flown by Saturn with the Voyager missions and seen the planet’s rings and some of its moons before it launched Cassini, but they didn’t know what made the rings “tick” or what the atmosphere was made of. There was already another spacecraft, Galileo, at Jupiter, and scientists wanted to compare those two planets.
Now Galileo is gone, and the Voyagers are on the fringe of the solar system, with Voyager 1 out in interstellar space. There isn’t another mission like Cassini around one of the giant planets that has the longevity and the billion-dollar investment. So Cassini is kind of a relic of an earlier time of these big missions, which really makes it special. The mission also cost over $3 billion, so it’s no small thing.
Ok, now for the tough question: If Cassini is so special, why are scientists hell-bent on crashing it into a planet?
Yes, on Sept. 15, NASA is going to crash Cassini into Saturn. Really what’s happening is that they’ve extended the mission three or four times since 2008, and now Cassini is running out of “gas”. NASA could just leave it in orbit around Saturn if it wanted to and let the plutonium battery run down. But the problem is that scientists won’t be able to control the spacecraft if something goes wrong, like if it heads toward one of Saturn’s moons, such as Titan, where scientists know there is an atmosphere and liquid hydrocarbons.
Even worse, Cassini could head toward Enceladus, where scientists know there’s water and heat underneath that water — the two biggest ingredients for life. They don’t want to contaminate a place where there could be microbes with stuff from Earth. So in order to protect the moons of Saturn from any kind of contamination, they’re going to preventatively crash Cassini into the atmosphere of Saturn to dispose of it.
There’s been a lot of public interest in the Cassini mission, especially once word got out that it was going to end in such a spectacular manner. Why do you think people are so fascinated by this particular mission and so sad to see it end?
It’s hard not to anthropomorphize these missions that have been going on for over a decade. Cassini is the second longest mission for NASA after the Voyager mission, which just celebrated its fortieth anniversary. When you have something that lasts that long and continues to perform perfectly, you get used to it.
You mention the images that Cassini sent back to Earth. A lot of those pictures were distributed primarily through social media, right? Do you think the Twitterverse played a part in making the mission so popular?
Well, Cassini launched and arrived before the advent of social media, so half of its mission we’d just get announcements from NASA that said “look at this new image.” But after 2007 or so, when Cassini got its own Twitter account, people could see those images a lot faster. And it reached more people. The more that people can find a mission and the imagery that comes back from it, the more interest the mission draws.
NASA did some other really great things, too, to capitalize on social media interest with Cassini. They asked everyone on Earth to wave at Saturn and then they took a picture of Earth from Saturn. They had people get involved. They sent postcards from Saturn during holidays just to remind people that Cassini is there.
You mentioned the Voyager spacecraft earlier, both of which launched in 1977. Is Voyager another mission that generated widespread public interest?
All of Voyager’s major mission accomplishments happened in the 1980s. For the current generation, those probes have long since passed their targets and are just kind of hurtling out of the solar system. The big draw now for Voyager is that people have grown up with the images of the outer planets from this mission — or at least I did. Those images were solidified in the iconography of space history.
However, my daughter is growing up with Cassini photos because those are coming down almost every other day from Saturn. Except now, everyone can just access those photos directly instead of having to write to NASA — that’s what we used to have to do. But comparing Cassini to Voyager isn’t off the mark. While Voyager had a big place in the public interest, Cassini has had a front and center position in the digital and social age.
What about more current missions, like New Horizons? How do those missions compare to Cassini?
You could compare Cassini to NASA’s Curiosity rover, which was the first big Mars landing of the social media age. And then there’s NASA’s Pluto mission, New Horizons, which swung by Pluto — the last of the eight or nine planets (depending on how you count them) to be explored — in 2015. That was another mission that really grabbed everyone’s attention because we had never been to Pluto before and, here we were, swinging right by. But Cassini was the workhorse going through all that — keeping folks aware that there were other things happening in the solar system. Once Cassini falls to Saturn, the outer solar system will be a little lonely.
We’ve been talking exclusively about NASA, which of course is a federal agency, but let’s talk for a minute about private spaceflight companies, like Blue Origin & SpaceX. Have these companies also played a part in ushering in a new age of enthusiasm for space exploration?
Well, a rising tide lifts all boats. So you have social media-savvy companies like SpaceX and Blue Origins, which use drones to record their rocket launches, and NASA is learning from them. Now, whenever NASA does a test, they’re recording it and streaming it live on social media. Those companies serve as models for how to share information with the public.
And NASA and these companies are also partners; NASA has teamed up with private companies to build things, like spaceships to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. NASA has also been working with private companies on missions to other planets. It works with SpaceX on that company’s plan to go to Mars. Lockheed Martin wants to build private habitats around Mars, and NASA is looking at that, too.
So I think people learn what these companies are doing, and then they want to know what NASA is doing. And then they find out that NASA is working with these companies on a lot of the same projects. They’re intertwined.
But NASA is still missing one thing: Elon Musk.
True. So, these private companies might not have as much news as NASA that they share all the time, but when they do share something, it makes a bigger splash because the companies are led by really eccentric or savvy individuals.
Elon Musk will put out a note that he’s showing a new spacesuit later in the week, and everyone goes crazy. And then he posts a picture of the suit on Instagram, rather than having a press release! Everyone gets excited about that. So now, for example, when NASA announces its new astronauts, it releases YouTube videos about that, in addition to doing a press conference.
NASA has been learning over the last decade how to engage with a new generation of people, which is good because these are people that NASA needs to be the scientists who come up with new missions.
We keep coming back to social media. Clearly, sites like Twitter and Instagram are helping get the word out about NASA missions and Elon Musk’s spacesuit designs. But have you also seen interest in space in general grow with the rise of social media?
I think it has grown in giant leaps, to use a space saying. When I was a kid in the eighties we had a Time Life book about the solar system. I read that book and the encyclopedias we had over and over to learn what life would be like on other planets. And now my daughter has those books, but if she wants to see what it looks like on Mars today, she can just go look. She can also see what Saturn looks like or how far away Voyager is.
And when my daughter and I watch rocket launches together, we watch it on the phone through YouTube, and we also see the photos that astronauts are posting from space on Twitter. These kinds of assets widen the reach of NASA, as well as the private space companies and the scientists who are the ones making everything happen. It opens up a window into space in general but also the whole process of how a mission is made.
When NASA comes up with a new mission to Saturn, you can bet there’s going to be a social media campaign planned into it. There could also be some new way that NASA encourages people to follow the mission — maybe through virtual reality, which is still in its early stages. Going forward there will be a whole new cadre of tools for space fans to get what they need.
What about people who really aren’t that interested in space? Why should they care about it? Let’s hear your pitch.
You know, not everyone gets to go to space. There have only been about 500 people that have gone. The rest of us have to read about it or follow social media. And our goal [at Space.com] is to help people experience that voyage of discovery from the comfort of their own homes. Exploring space is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, and we want to virtually transport people through space with our coverage.
It’s my personal view that all of this — the missions and everything else — happens because of people. You can send as many robots and rockets as you want out there, but people have to build them and come up with the ways to study these places. Someone had to say “We should land a probe on Titan!” and someone else had to say “Well, how do we get it there?”
These are all stories that push our understanding of the solar system and the universe forward. Without people, none of this happens. We try to find those stories of exploration and how that spirit gets transported across the solar system. And then we bring those stories back so folks can read them and absorb them and figure out what it means to them.
What about you? What do these stories mean to you, the managing editor of a space news website?
I’ll admit that nine times out of ten, when I go into the office, I’m just thinking about what the news is that day and what I’m going to have for lunch. But then there are times that I remember — when I’m sitting at an outdoor movie event with my daughter, waiting for the show to start — that space is always there.
There’s the moon. It’s right there. There are Mars and Saturn. They’re closer than you think. Saturn is visible to the unaided eye. When I look at it, I know there’s a spacecraft there. There’s a moon up there that has a piece of Earth on it — a probe that humans built and sent there. You can see the space station fly overheard with six people on it. I’ve met some of them.
So our stories make space more accessible. If we can understand what’s around us in the solar system and the universe, maybe we can understand how we got here. Hopefully, we can learn that we’re not alone. That impetus to understand is going to prevail regardless of all the differences we have on this planet. There will always be that push to find out new things.
How should we say goodbye to Cassini here on Earth?
People should go out and find Cassini in the night sky and just think about it. There’s a spacecraft that’s been in space for almost 20 years, and it has been taking the best pictures ever of that planet. And we sent it. And that was with 1980s technology. What could we send now? What could my daughter send to space? If we really put our mind to it, what else could we do up in space, or here on Earth, to really push things forward? People complain that the cost is too high or that we have other things to worry about, but without that drive to find out what’s next, I don’t think we’ll make any more progress. I have a lot of optimism for the future of space exploration, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
With the Cassini mission ending and the solar eclipse in the past, what’s the next big event that Space.com is looking forward to covering? And why should everyone care about it?
On Oct. 4, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union. It was the first satellite ever launched into orbit. In other words, it’s only been 60 years since the first satellite launched into space, and since then we’ve sent a probe into interstellar space, landed on a moon of Saturn and flown past Pluto. Oh, and people have walked on the moon! We’ll be looking at that anniversary and taking stock of what the next 60 years of space exploration might bring.