I had never even heard of it until April.
It’s funny how humans can send a chunky metal box floating through space millions of miles from our planet and I’d never even heard of it. Of course I was something like nine or ten years old when the unmanned spacecraft left our orbit for the darker, more melodramatic fringe of the solar system, that stretch of lonely planets past the asteroid belt, unimaginably massive gaseous orbs that seemed so threatening to me at that age.
In my library books the authors would depict the Great Red Spot, the bulbous anticyclone on Jupiter’s underside, with three superimposed Earths neatly laid within it, illustrating its size and magnitude. The storm has been observed continuously from Earth since 1830, when there were only 24 states in the American Union; observations of a similar red storm go as far back as 1665, just a year before the Great Fire of London. Its clouds extend 8km higher into the atmosphere than the surrounding cloud layer, tens of thousands of miles of violent rotating hydrogen and helium cycling in and out of eddies and bands which circle the planet’s 89,000 mile diameter at speeds of over 100 miles per second. Nothing we know about the gas giants is subtle or understated.
Except that we still know very little about them, and what we do learn continues to mystify and intrigue. Jupiter and Saturn are both composed primarily of Hydrogen and Helium, with a hypothetical set of strata placing molecular hydrogen on top of a huge sliding layer of liquid metallic hydrogen that condenses into a conductive metal until it reaches a hot rocky core, the elements and composition of which are guessed at but assumed to be similar to Earth’s. Saturn is yellow due to the presence of ammonia crystals in its atmosphere; the red and brownish streaks in Jupiter’s clouds are thought to be compounds stirred up from below which react to the Sun’s ultraviolet light. Scientists believe that reactions in both planet’s atmospheres cause diamonds to form and rain.
Saturn alone has 62 known moons, only 53 of which have been named, one of which may have its own ring-system. Titan, its largest moon, has its own atmosphere. There’s more going on in the orbits of both Jupiter and Saturn than seemingly the rest of the solar system combined. And out there in that cold black vastness, shifting around silently from point to point, taking photos and calculations and dutifully sending them back to Earth, is Cassini.
Cassini, officially called Cassini–Huygens, is the fourth space probe to be sent to Saturn and only the first to enter the planet’s orbit. Developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the American National Academy of Sciences in 1982, Cassini-Huygens actually consists of two separate components — Cassini, the probe currently orbiting Saturn; and Huygens, a lander intended for Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. After the concept was proposed as a core project for NASA following an investigation into American/European cooperative space missions, NASA and the ESA studied the potential mission for the following three years.
In 1987, five years after its conception, American astronaut Sally Ride published her famous Ride Report, in which she wrote approvingly of the Cassini probe. Interestingly, Cassini’s origins are steeped in both geopolitical and environmentalist tensions. At the moment of the project’s imminence, relations between US and European space programs had grown strained as NASA came under popular scrutiny for appearing to condescend to the ESA throughout previous collaborations. NASA used the Cassini-Huygens collaboration as an opportunity to both balance European perceptions and leverage the relationship in the American competition with then-Soviet Russia, elbowing in for European cooperation. For six more years the project was scrutinized by Congressional budget committees, each time dodging potential cuts. Despite political success, however, Cassini came under fire briefly in late 90s over its use of Plutonium by environmentalist groups and scientific celebrities such as Michio Kaku.
Despite 15 years of international co-development and political hiccups, Cassini-Huygens was launched from Earth on October 15, 1997. Together, the two components weighed almost 5,500 pounds, and stood nearly 7 feet tall and thirteen feet wide. It was powered by 72 pounds of radioactive plutonium-238, the decay heat from which is transformed into electricity that powers the onboard spectrometers, cosmic dust analyzer, various imaging systems, magnetometer, radar, and radio and plasma science instruments.
After its launch from Earth, Cassini performed two fly-by passes around Venus, slingshotted back past Earth and then once again around Jupiter. Seven years later on Christmas Day, 2004 — one day before the Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean — it had sailed out past Mars, the asteroid belt and Jupiter to arrive in Saturn’s orbital zone, nearly 750 million miles from Earth. 22 years after its initial conception, Cassini had been planned, funded, built, launched and flung at high speeds out into the frigid vacuum of outer space in the direction of an enormous gas giant by itself.
I became aware of Cassini’s Pixaresque story four months ago when a writer at my publication was covering news of the space probe’s first of many dives through Saturn’s rings. It came to me, anthropomorphized as it was, positioned as mankind’s tiny cosmic voyager traveling all alone out there on the edge of space for the benefit of science. Cassini seemed so brave, I felt compelled to become acquainted with it, though I arrived in its life just near the end; my relationship with the space probe was framed by the news of its approaching death. Cassini for me will only ever be a finite, ungrounded concept — an idea in my head with which I am cannot truly interact, divorced from the object itself. It intrigues me because it and its mission are all heady ideas and emotions, nothing physical with which to tether them.
Stranger yet, what Cassini sends back — and this (and most of these observations) is true of nearly every other space probe — is only more bizarre. Scientific observations of titanic planets so completely unlike our Earth, and so volatile and unforgiving, that they have almost zero bearing on my own life. It’s a metal box floating around in space pinging photos of Saturn’s rings to me with a camera built in 1997. The year it launched, our current President was giving interviews to Playboy. Space probes tell us a lot about the nature of reality, but they can’t always tell us much about the nature of our reality.
Probes like Cassini seem like they would be something of a hard sell to the US Government. Cassini as a concept emerged during the cold war 1980s and was used partially to curry favorability with a cooling Europe against the influence of Russia, but it entered budgetary concerns during the Clinton era of the 1990s, when politics were growing more partisan and vicious. The probe almost suffered from budget cuts in ’92 and again in ’94, the same year Republicans took both the house and the senate. The entire project cost $3.26 billion, with 80% of its budget ($2.6bn) coming out of American pockets.
To put that into perspective, Cassini’s entire budget is an almost 1/6th of the $19.1 billion dollar budget Trump has sought, which is less than a half a percent of the annual budget, paltry compared to its space race heyday. And while Trump’s cuts were kind to the space program, and it’s still a relatively popular institution among Americans across the ideological spectrum, space exploration is now increasingly being led in the private sector by billionaires like Elon Musk and his ambitious SpaceX program. Trump’s budget actually allocates more funding ($1.9 billion) to planetary missions like Cassini than Obama’s budget did, although circumstances are contextually different.
If many coastal Americans live in a country we do not know, why is the president of alienated, unsung factory workers from the middle so partial to spending on space exploration? It seems like a first pick to jettison in the march toward balancing the budget and getting Americans ‘back to work.’ It’s not that simple. Americans on the whole have a positive opinion of space research and exploration, but the rate of the positivity correlates to education levels and partisan identity — meaning they’re more likely to be supportive of space research if they have a college degree and/or they identify as a democrat, insinuating that NASA could very easily become one of the many American institutions to suffer from the polarization that has claimed science.
And a positive attitude does not mean more funding — on the contrary, less than a quarter of Americans think that NASA’s budget is too little. A good number of Americans believe we will land on Mars, but they aren’t willing to pay for it. Match that with Trump’s defense budget which, at $639 billion (almost 34 times NASA’s budget), is considered by Republicans to be short of their desired figure. Americans are, however, somewhat unsure about sending humans into space, which favors probes like Cassini, although even unmanned trips to nearby Mars are growing more difficult to fund.
Still, many Americans are similarly sad to see Cassini go. I discovered I am not the only person to have this reaction. As the Atlantic has dutifully covered over the last four months, many people across the internet have shared a mournful emotional reaction to the news of Cassini’s imminent death. The cause, they said, is our preference to anthropomorphize objects:
Research has shown that people can feel the same kind of empathy for robots as they do for humans. In one study, participants watched videos of a boy and several kinds of robots getting yelled at or being pushed around, and were then asked which they would save in the event of an earthquake. Their picks showed that participants felt more empathy for the boy and the robots that looked and talked like humans than for device-like robots, like a Roomba — but they felt compassion for the Roomba, too. In another study, participants were hooked up to a brain-imaging machine and shown clips of a a woman, a box, and a robotic toy dinosaur receiving affection, and then being physically abused. Participants showed more concern for the human than for the dinosaur, but their brains reacted in a similar way as they watched the dinosaur squirm and let out tiny electronic screams.
Despite our brains knowing full-well that robots do not contain little lives inside them — that they are just metal boxes with wires in them — we respond to them emotionally. That feeling is understandable. In another, more recent article about our response to machines, the same author explored human responses to NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover singing itself “Happy Birthday” alone on the red planet:
Scientists and astronomy fans are currently slogging through a weeks-long public mourning period for the Cassini spacecraft, which will end its mission next month. One planetary scientist recently told me she feels like she should be sipping vodka the day Cassini burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere, in a somber tribute to a brave pioneer….So it’s no surprise that the idea of a space robot “celebrating” its birthday — the very thing that makes something alive — makes people feel all the feels, even if they know it doesn’t make sense. As one user wrote back in 2013, “It’s literally an inanimate object why am I still crying.”
That makes sense. Science explains our need to see these inanimate objects as living beings deserving of love and respect. They move and imitate living things to the degree that we see them as such, and our conditioning through culture and media, as science fiction has proliferated, probably does not hinder our need to look at inorganic objects and see emotive, identifiable faces. We see a human-like object and then we attach emotions to it.
And perhaps that’s what’s going on here. Sometimes, though, I wonder if depression over the burnt-up lonely death of a NASA space probe doesn’t also work in the opposite direction. The studies cited by Marina Koren in both articles for the Atlantic focus on human reactions to the harm which befalls the robots during the experiments. In each of these studies, as in the current case of Cassini, our relationship with the robots is defined by their proximity to harm and/or death, and our emotional response to those circumstances. In the situation of the toy dinosaur, for example, the robot in question likely draws out human sympathy because it appears to be the most organic object compared to a bomb disposal robot and a Roomba. And as each of the studies found, humans responded more emotionally to human-like and organic robots.
That distinction is not fully-defined of course, and in the case of Curiosity, its ‘humanity’ is not contingent upon its humanoid appearance but its celebration of a birthday. While it makes sense for human beings to recoil in anxiety over the fate of a more humanoid or organic-seeming robot, Cassini appears nothing like an organic object found in nature. It’s a box with several protrusions (the nature of which I do not understand) and a single satellite.
Nothing about Cassini looks or feels like an organic, living being. It doesn’t have a recognizable face. It hasn’t sung itself “happy birthday,” not even once. It has existed as a vessel for galactic exploration for the larger part of my time on Earth without my being aware of it. And yet, I’m saddened by its approaching death. Why?
So I submit this: Cassini is years and years of hard human work. Cassini is the seed of an idea. Cassini is a reminder that those ideas can be tremendous spring traps — that ideas alone hold tremendous consequences for the physical world and how we activate our presence in its field of possibilities.
This past week I attended the women’s semifinals at the US Open in Queens, where I watched Venus Williams compete against Sloane Stephens. I rooted for Venus, because I knew about her — because I was familiar with her long, famous story — and because I wanted to see a female athlete in her late thirties come back and win the title again. I was fascinated by Sloane, too, because of her own trials — because of her injuries, and her perseverance, her ability to rise through the ranks of tennis even as an unseeded player. Sloane and Venus both had compelling, interesting narratives that landed both players on the court that cool dry evening in early September. Both of those women had come through difficult circumstances, trials, tests, etc. to arrive at that point, and one of them had to lose. The match was by turns delightfully entertaining and frustrating. My husband was leaping out of his seat, practically screaming at times— a great set of tennis rises with each return, one after the other, gaining momentum as both players tear back and forth across the court, returning the ball, lobbing it across the net, executing their private strategies. And with each return the tension rises, because sooner or later the audience knows it will end. As each player demonstrates talent and mastery, we grow frustrated and anxious about who will lose, because we know deeply we want to see neither lose for the amount of effort wasted.
Cassini is years of lobbing the ball back and forth across the court, through nations, organizations, politics, finance, space, planets, rings and time. Cassini is the location of all those efforts piling on top of each other, realizing its mission against those obstacles. It is an intention which began as an idea that took on a life of its own through the functions of international governance and the instrumentation of human intelligence, skill, physical capabilities and pure will. That human beings dreamt it, Cassini now floats above a gas giant millions of miles from Earth, awaiting its own end.
I revisited Holst’s suite The Planets the day I read about Cassini’s fate — movement five: “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.” Holst’s view of Saturn is intriguing and playful, aping its personality more from the Roman god after which the planet was named than the very giant itself. It begins quietly, transforming into a regal march that resolves with a bright, brassy fanfare. It bears the masculine brand of space exploration, a Victorian scientific confidence in progress which sounds more like raiding jungle ruins than pondering the nickel-iron core hidden beneath miles of dense metallic hydrogen. What now feels most appropriate for Cassini — its long, quiet gestation, the launch, the slow approach and the aching, lonely years spent living in a beautiful, isolated region of unforgiving space before a handsomely tragic death — I thought instead of Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde. It’s an unbound, emotional piece of romantic German opera from the 1850s used liberally throughout Lars Von Trier’s own planetary tragedy, Melancholia. It feels fitting. It’s grandiose and longing. It evokes the pain of being alive and feeling, of pouring energy into an endeavor which must inevitably end in heartbreak.
Cassini observes a part of the universe unintended for us. It is perhaps the strangest part about the gas giants — not just in the way we see worlds like Venus or Mars, or even mysterious exoplanets out there in Kepler and Trappist. Being human, we search for familiar life and habitats on other worlds which may sustain us, but there is nothing for us on Jupiter and Saturn. There’s no “life as we know it” way out underneath the foggy velvet blue of Uranus’ dense troposphere. There’s only gas and matter boiling over itself thoughtlessly, without aim or purpose, obeying physical laws and properties. There’s benefit to science, surely — a greater understanding of our solar system, its worlds and how they work. But the thought of it boggles the mind a bit; tremendous, heavy pressures, searing heat, rapid atoms pouring about madly with nothing to live in them — just being, with or without the human eye to observe it. There’s an observable universe we cannot presently see with our own eyes, doing its own thing anyway. Where Cassini is now, the days are unlike ours. It provides us a window into that reality, reminds us the universe does not require our participation to exist.
Cassini, tiny lens, telegraphing images of a place without life. Today it dies a private death we cannot witness.