May 282010

Who’s been watching the ABC Science documentary, ‘Voyage to the Planets’ on Thursday nights?

If you haven’t, you’ve missed a real treat. Three programs of six have been screened thus far, the most recent being all about Saturn. I’ve followed the Cassini-Huygens program since the spacecraft’s initial approach to Saturn in 2004. Weekly updates from the science imaging team at JPL, most of which read like gobbledegook with mentions of reaction wheel adjustments, orbital correction manoeuvers and targeted passes by this or that instrument. However, I stay with the news release mail and continue to marvel at the tremendous successes of a robotic spacecraft almost 1.4 billion kilometers and 13 years away from home in the depths of space.
According to the current extended, extended mission, called Cassini’s Equinox Mission, the robot will continue to function and be sending data on the Saturnian system back to its masters for another seven years. At that point, the spacecraft which was only ever intended to function in Saturn’s dangerously crowded orbit for four years, will be directed to use the last of its propellant in a suicide dive into the gas giant’s atmosphere. The same fate awaits all interplanetary explorer robots which are sent beyond the asteroid belt. Humanity has contaminated enough of the inner planet’s realm. Given the remarkable discoveries on Europa, Io, Titan and now Enceladus – places where organic elements may be experiencing the conditions suitable for the advent of life – mission commanders have no desire to leave potential contaminants careening around the gas giants to possibly impact where life might be arising.
On the subject of postcards from the Saturnian system, take a gander at this one. It’s absolutely stunning. A view of Titan, with the Ring system in between, as the Cassini vessel makes a close pass over the surface of Enceladus. Note the atmosphere on Titan, which was heavily featured in last nights doco.