Cassini, We’re Going to Miss You!

The Cassini spacecraft is about to end its role in one of the most incredible scientific journeys in history. Launched almost twenty years ago on a billion-mile trip to Saturn, Cassini has been sending back astounding images and data ever since. An international collaboration of U.S. and European space agencies, Cassini has probably delivered more surprises to researchers on Earth than any probe before or after—ranging from pictures of the mist-shrouded surface of Titan with its methane lakes and rivers, to the water geysers and hidden ocean of Enceladus, to the stunning beauty and complexity of the rings, to the crazy giant hexagon* on the north pole of Saturn itself.

NASA has produced a breathtaking video summary of Cassini’s journey, which I would embed here if I could find the embed code. But click here, and watch it in full screen. It’ll be the best five minutes you spent today.

Cassini has been a workhorse of stellar quality. But it’s finally running out of fuel—years after the originally planned end date of its mission—and to keep it from accidentally colliding with one of the potentially life-hosting moons, it’s going out in a blaze of glory, burning up tomorrow morning in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. It makes me sad. I wish it could have been kept in a parking orbit somewhere safe, so that some future exploration crew could have docked with it, put placards on it, and turned it into the Saturn branch of the Smithsonian, to be kept in perpetuity. But caution ruled, and rightly so, I guess. We’re looking eagerly for extraterrestrial life, and it wouldn’t do for the field to be littered with bits of Earth life. Plus, she’ll be doing science all the way in as she augers into Saturn, where she’ll melt and burn and vaporize at the end. What a way to go.

I feel kind of weepy, imagining that. But you can watch it live right here, Friday morning at 7-8:30 a.m. EDT.

Here’s a collection of some of Cassini’s greatest hits.

*Which I still maintain is a hex socket for aliens to use in opening up the top of the planet. JPL scientists insist it’s a weather system, and usually I believe them. This time, I’m not so sure.

Real Sub vs Movie Sub

I’ve always been fascinated by submarines and all things underwater. Lately I’ve been reading a book called The Ice Diaries, by William R. Anderson & Don Keith. Anderson was captain of the world’s first nuclear submarine, Nautilus, when it completed the first trans-arctic voyage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, straight across the North Pole under the polar ice cap. That was in the summer of 1958. Captain Anderson tells a fascinating story of the work—and the setbacks—that went into this super top-secret mission. They sailed by special order of President Eisenhower, at a time when America was still reeling from the Soviet Union’s firsts in space and badly wanted a first of its own. (For you young’uns, this was during the Cold War, and these things mattered.)

Much of the passage was tricky to execute, because of the boat’s being sandwiched between shallow bottoms and down-plunging ridges and keels of overhead ice. Both posed a hazard to the boat, which was vulnerable to damage, especially to her periscopes and sail. It had not been built with this mission in mind, and her first forays under the ice cap had resulted in bent periscopes and a bashed-in sail. Little was known about these waters, inertial navigation was difficult close to magnetic north, and instrumentation for scanning overhead obstacles was still in its infancy. It was an impressive achievement! Here, from the book, is Nautilus returning to visit New York City.

That got me thinking about an old movie called Ice Station Zebra, from 1968, with Rock Hudson as skipper of a nuclear sub called upon to go under the polar ice. (In this case, they were to deliver some important people carrying guns to an outpost far up in the arctic.) Turns out I have a copy (I collect movies, probably more than I should), and I started watching it to see how the fictional sub sized up against the real one. The answer, to my surprise, is it sized up pretty well!

The sub in the movie looks a lot like the Nautilus, actually. (That’s a snapshot from the movie, above.) The scenes in the control room felt more realistic to me than I expected—not that I would know—and some of the instruments they showed for scanning the ice looked just like what Captain Anderson described in his book, including a monitor showing TV images from the sail. I’m going to guess that these exterior underwater shots of the sub showed it closer to dangerous ice than the real people would have liked to go, but hey, it’s a movie. As a film, it’s just so-so, but as a depiction of what that voyage might have looked like, I give it a thumbs-up!

I should ask my niece’s husband Steve about it sometime. He’s a real-life sub captain. I wonder if he ever went under the ice.

By the way, you can go aboard the real Nautilus at the Submarine Museum in Groton, CT. I’ve been; it’s very cool.

John Glenn, Last Mercury Astronaut

John Glenn and Mercury Friendship 7

The death of John Glenn on Dec. 8, 2016 marks the end of an era: the glory days of NASA’s manned spaceflight program. It also marks another of my heroes gone from the world. I was twelve when Mercury Astronaut John Glenn rode the fiery Atlas rocket into orbit. I was transfixed for the duration of the flight. We were doing it. We were finally traveling in space! Glenn was instantly my hero, and rightly so. And now he is gone, from this life, at least. Godspeed, John Glenn!

His passing brings back echoes of other pioneers who have passed into history in the last few years: Neil Armstrong, whose words “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” marked a defining moment in human history, the mere memory of which sends chills down my spine. Sally Ride, who broke the gender barrier for American space travelers, and went on to become a role model for young women everywhere. Leonard Nimoy, whose portrayal of the half-Vulcan Spock grew nearer and dearer with each passing year.

Glenn, of course, went on to become a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and in 1998 became the oldest human (at 77) to fly in space. We should all be so productive.

I never met Glenn or any of these other heroes. But in a way, their passing is deeply personal to me, because what they did with their lives so deeply touched my own life. And that’s a pretty good way to go, don’t you think?

Wanderers (of a Strange and Distant Time)

Want to be mesmerized for three and a half minutes? Open this on a good monitor, click the “full screen” icon in the lower right of this video, turn up the sound, and sit back and journey the solar system. See if you recognize the voice.



Thanks to Astronomy Picture of the Day for showing it to me. For more information about the film and scenes depicted, visit the website of Erik Wernquist, who assembled the film. A remarkable piece of inspiration.

And yes, my title line is a near-quote from the Moody Blues. Extra point if you can name the album, without looking it up.

Ballooning to the Edge of Space

I’m watching the live coverage of Felix Baumgartner’s balloon flight to the edge of outer space. He’s presently at 127,000 feet and still ascending, well past the previous record for manned balloon flight. The plan is for him to jump in his specialized pressure suit and freefall through the sound barrier before parachuting to the ground. 

Live shot of capsule at nearly 128,000 feet

He’s having problem with the heat not working in his faceplate, but they’ve just announced that he will jump regardless. They’re beginning now to depressurize the capsule, preparatory to his stepping out of the capsule and jumping…

Stay tuned!