The Cassini Burnout

Al Jacobs

At precisely 3:31 a.m., Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, Pacific Daylight Savings Time, a 3,420-pound mechanical device ceased to exist. At that moment it became swallowed up by the fiery interior of the gaseous planet Saturn, nearly a billion miles from Earth. Why this event should be of concern to anyone is a matter which deserves to be told.

The mechanical device created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers and technicians over 20 years ago, and named Cassini, began its voyage into space aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur launch vehicle on Oct. 15, 1997. The project, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ISA), was to send a probe to study the planet Saturn and its system, including its moons and rings. The $3.9 billion cost of the operation is a legacy of the go-big mentality of the early days of space exploration, where few restraints existed to minimize the scope of such explorations.

The results from this spacecraft voyage included stunning images and troves of scientific data such as revelations of smaller moons not previously observed, as well as geysers spewing from the weird Saturn satellite Enceladus. In addition, the planetary ring system orbiting the planet, consisting of countless small particles made up almost entirely of ice with imperfections embedded, received close observation. In all, nearly a half million pictures were taken and transmitted by Cassini for review by the many teams of scientists assigned to scrutinize the data.

The final report of the project’s achievements is summed up by NASA’s program scientist Curt Niebur, who states: “The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful and it’s coming to an end. I find great comfort in the fact Cassini will continue teaching us up to the very last second.”

You’ll note the Cassini project is neither the first nor the last interplanetary expedition conducted by NASA and its various confederates. Not long ago the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, announced they found “another Earth-sun twin system” with the potential for “liquid water on the surface … that could mean life.” The planet is designated Kepler-452b; the source of this discovery is the Kepler Spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 7, 2009. This project, employing countless scientists and technicians, has been scouring the heavens in search of planets capable of supporting living organisms.

Though this may seem enticing at first glance, a few details must be revealed. Our “Earth-sun twin” is not exactly next door and therefore ripe for discovery. It resides in the Constellation Cygnus, approximately 1,400 light years distant. If we launched a rocket toward it at 30,000 miles-per-hour – the same speed as our recent space mission to Pluto – it would take 31.2 million years to arrive.

It goes without saying if earthlike beings inhabiting Kepler-452b, possessing a technology comparable to ours, chose to visit us, we’d not see them for 31.2 million years. Nonetheless the Kepler project, thus far costing $550 million, will continue to function as planned, with each successive “discovery” lauded as another important victory for science.

And while we’re pondering what’s next, the Mars Exploration Program (MEP) comes to mind. Formed in 1993, MEP employed orbital spacecraft and Mars rovers, as well as countless scientists and technicians, in the search for life on the Red Planet. Although the efforts to date reveal nothing, the quest for the origin of life goes on. Said John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate: “Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected.” These sentiments are echoed by Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for MEP, who declared: “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”

There’s a problem, of course. In addition to water, life also requires sources of energy to survive. A prevalence of superoxides on Mars makes life at the surface of the planet unlikely, ruling out sunlight. This relegates any carbon-based life forms to the subsurface, with an energy source of geothermal or chemical. Whatever forms of life may be encountered will not resemble the creatures from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. Instead, they’ll be primitive and lackluster. Nonetheless, irrespective of revelations, or lack of them, the odyssey will continue. If nothing of consequence materializes, something will be conjured up.

As to what will be conjured up, this is where it becomes murkier. An article some time ago in The Verge, a prominent website covering the intersection of technology, science, art and culture, announced “NASA finds evidence of 10 new Earth-sized planets in our corner of the galaxy.” It goes on to say they orbit their stars in the habitable zone – “just far enough away to develop water, but not so far that they freeze.”

The significance, of course, is “these planets possess the potential for liquid water on the surface … that could mean life.” The likelihood water may exist on a planet, and thus the possibility of life forms, is the impetus behind this most recent effort. It’s this fixation on water which fuels the research enthusiasm. These discoveries are a part of the Kepler space telescope, employing countless scientists and technicians, and now scouring the heavens in search of planets that may support living organisms.

This brings us to a more fundamental question. What’s the purpose of this continual pursuit into the cosmos? In an earlier time, during the Cold War, with world supremacy on the line, the space race could be rationalized. The U.S. and the USSR aggressively competed in technological one-upmanship, and the expertise we might develop could be a factor in guaranteeing our national survival. Here in the 21st Century this is no longer the case. Except for providing grants for selected beneficiaries and salaries for a lot of chosen people, it’s difficult to describe exactly what NASA’s 2017 budget of $19.0 billion actually does for the average American.

However, with moonwalks no longer in vogue and the targeting of our sister planets with occasional rocket shots having become tiresome, there’s nothing of consequence to be done. We may fantasize about a colony on Mars or discovering an alien race in a distant galaxy, but it’s mostly pipedream. All our governmental activities in space now accomplish is feeding taxpayer money to selected recipients.

Nonetheless the quest for the origin of life goes on, and there is no bit of trivia too insignificant not to be cited as a basis for renewed endeavor. Irrespective of revelations – or lack of them – the odyssey will continue, for as with any government program, perpetuation is the primary aim. It’s just such projects as these which bolster the continuity of NASA’s involvement in an endless succession of studies and explorations that never end.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues a monthly newsletter in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view it on


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