Wednesday, November 2, 2011

To the Dark Side of Saturn

A 2006 photo taken by the Cassini-Huygens space probe. I found it earlier this year at this site. The planet is back lit with our Sun just barely peeking over the lower left edge of the planet, about a billion miles away.

I remember sitting in my office in my former life as a marketing and training officer of a small financial institution holding company in October of 1997 watching a video online of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft launch. It had occurred very early on the morning of October 15. Too early for me to catch it live on the internet. So, I saw the replay on the NASA website.

It was exciting to me. Our first serious space mission to Saturn. It would take 7 years for the spacecraft to reach Saturn’s orbit. I wondered where I would be in 7 years. Little did I suspect that halfway through that time-frame the holding company would be sold to a major regional player and I would be forced to switch career paths for the fifth time in my life.

It was the heyday of the Clinton years. The economy was booming; growing so fast that Alan Greenspan was warning about all the “irrational exuberance” that pervaded the business world. That certainly seems like another lifetime ago today.

Yet between then and now, Cassini trekked closer to its destination, eventually arriving in orbit sometime in the year 2004. I don’t recall much else about the mission. Having an interest in space exploration, I checked on the mission now and then, paying particular attention to the news that came to me mid-way through the first decade of this century.

Somehow, however, I must have gotten distracted with other things and I completely missed the photo captured above when it was released in 2006. Taken from the side of Saturn opposite the Sun, it shimmers with interstellar brilliance. I found it recently while, as usual, looking for something completely unrelated. “Wow,” was all I could say and I emailed the pic to a couple of friends mutually interested in space stuff. How could this stunning image have escaped my knowledge for so long?

Cassini (named after an early Italian astronomer) is an enormous scientific achievement. Equally as important as the research aspects of the mission, in my mind, is the international cooperation involved that got the spacecraft to Saturn to begin with. In addition to the United States, 16 other nations were involved in its design and production. To that extent, the mission serves as one of many space symbols for what can be achieved when humanity works together instead of the typical bickering and practice the fine art of one-upsmanship that pervades most of human endeavor.

Cassini represents where we need to go as a species. We need to go to into space, yes. But, we also need to reach for greater degrees of commonality and collaboration. In that sense, accomplishments like this serve as a guiding light for what if humanity sees itself as a "whole" instead of the increasingly antiquated tribal-nation mentality that permeates our behavior.

At a total cost of about $3.26 billion (80% of which was appropriated by the United States, of course) Cassini has traveled to a planet roughly 10 times the distance from the Sun as our Earth. Saturn’s distance from the Earth depends on the respective elliptical orbits of the two planets. It can be anywhere from as “close” as 794,000,000 miles or as “far” as 979,000,000.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the Cassini mission will be extended through 2017, making it yet another in a series of space probes that has lasted far beyond its operational expectancy. (Voyager 1 and Pioneer 10 top this list.) To date, Cassini has logged more than 2,600,000,000 miles traveled. That’s a lot of mileage out of what was originally a comparatively small amount of fuel at launch.

The pic I just discovered this year is breathtaking to me. There is something powerful about the fact that the spacecraft didn’t just make it to Saturn but routinely explores out beyond the other side of Saturn. The Sun, rather than being the guiding light for the venture becomes the back light or accentuating light for this photo. This provides a small opportunity for me to shift perspective. I am no longer on Earth looking out, I am in space looking back toward this “pale blue dot.”

With a combination of vicarious wonder, rational understanding, and spiritual appreciation, Cassini orients me to the proper place of our planet in the cosmos. And, to a certain extent, this allows me to orient my sense of self to everything else. Far from swallowing up or devouring who I am in the vast sea of teeming infinity, I find this a beautiful thing and it gives me some measure of internal peace and inspiration appreciation for broader perspectives.

No comments: