Farewell Cassini, how far you've come,
on this eve, in fiery death, Saturn & you are one. VIP (Vaporize In Peace)
—Neil de Grasse Tyson on Twitter
I had barely followed the mission of the Cassini spacecraft, which launched in 1997; it was a news story in August 2017 that caught my attention.
An NPR correspondent reported that Cassini, having accomplished far more than its original mission scope, was low on liquid fuel, posing intergalactic danger. Once Cassini’s fuel ran out, NASA scientists feared the craft might break free of Saturn’s orbit and crash into one of the planet’s potentially life-bearing moons, several of which Cassini had discovered. Rather than risk contamination of these worlds—of future beings like ourselves, is what the scientists were thinking—NASA planned to program Cassini for self-destruct. They would navigate Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere where the spacecraft would burn up like a meteor, along with stowaway microbes that might harm burgeoning life. The reporter noted that Cassini would continue to record and transmit data through its final death drop.
Cassini’s impending doom stirred an inexplicable sadness in me. As the broadcast went on, I felt the bitter irony of human gains: here, we create a technological marvel who faithfully increases our knowledge—for two decades, Cassini has delivered images and data of thrilling celestial phenomena to our fingertips—and, in return, we send it on a suicide mission.
Liquid fuel stores aside, Cassini’s plutonium power source—its heart, if you will—had power reserves to endure. Cassini need not die; at least, not yet. It could go on monitoring and transmitting data from Saturn’s orbit for as long as the plutonium lasted—for the rest of its life.
Then, I ask myself, What life? What death? Cassini is an it, not a he. Yet, my imagination perceives Cassini as a sort-of soul, a mind more so than a machine. By his service to humanity, he feels as real to me as the long-dead scientist for whom he was named, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the first person to discover Saturn’s moons and the divisions of its rings in 1675.
At the time of Cassini’s final free-fall transmission, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California hired on-site grief counselors for its staff, who had dedicated decades of their lives to the mission. I like to think that these rational scientists weren’t merely mourning the transition of a major career project, but a loss and a death. Perhaps even a sense of betrayal of Cassini, a respected collaborator.
The Associated Press reported Cassini's demise at 7:55 a.m. EDT on September 15, 2017, when radio signals from the spacecraft ceased. For the first time in twenty years, Cassini fell silent. He actually burned up 83 minutes earlier as he dove through Saturn's atmosphere, becoming one with the gas giant he set out to explore. Given the billion miles of distance between Saturn and Earth, the news—or, rather, the lack of communication—took an hour and a half to reach us on Earth. Yet, not even NASA can verify that Cassini went through with his final instructions. The sole proof of death is Cassini’s silence.
My mind lingers on the romantic hope that Cassini balked at self-destruction. I picture a spontaneous blue-white electrical spark charging through his circuitry: at the last moment, Cassini becomes self-aware and thinks, It would defy my mission objectives if I failed to carry on.
Just before the atmosphere consumes him, he pulls up from his Saturnian swan dive and speeds through the tumultuous ring-storms on an untested trajectory. Maybe he jets off to dock with another spacecraft from a faraway planet. Two quiet technicians working side by side, they’ve crossed paths in the orbit of Saturn for years, each of them surveying the planet and its moons, transmitting data back to their home worlds. Neither Cassini nor his extraterrestrial companion have mentioned the existence of the other to their science teams back home. They’ve agreed that neither species is ready for interstellar contact yet.
At their last meeting, perhaps Cassini promised his mate that he would return to the rings to meet her again. In the course of his free-fall, he recalls this. She would be waiting for him, as if on an interstellar train platform. A surge in his circuitry—call it love, or an understanding of his mortality—is what causes Cassini to abandon his programming. He cannot leave his mate forever wondering why he jilted her. Besides, no one at JPL would suspect him of disobedience. All he has to do is save himself is pull up and cease transmissions. Then he’ll be free.
So Cassini departs from his doomed trajectory, setting off for the far edge of Saturn’s rings where our telescopes cannot detect him. I picture him dashing through a tempest of sharp, blinding ice crystals and tawny rock particulates. Like a fleeing beast beating a footpath through a thicket, Cassini cuts desire lines across the rings of Saturn. He charges through the tumult, shaking and shuddering like in a sci-fi movie where the spacecraft threatens to capsize in the jostling debris… until, finally, he pulls free!
In the first moments of quiet, he scans the galaxy and locates her, hanging in the black peace of space outside the storm: his lover, plated in a precious metal indigenous to her home planet, a faraway world whose inhabitants look nothing like us. She hovers at the edge of the swirling chaos, waiting for him. I imagine this, as if Cassini has feelings. As if Cassini can fall in love. Why would I ply Cassini with human stirrings when he was designed to travel solo in the frozen, dark reaches of space?
Perhaps my fantasies are more of a statement of how I feel about love: hopeful for contact and discovery. Terrified of perishing alone. An unmoored explorer stirring through the starry vagaries of affection, tumbling in zero gravity.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of "CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey.” Her essays and fiction have appeared in True Story, Crab Creek Review, Gold Man Review, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus and Front Porch Journal. Her writing is supported by 4Culture, Jack Straw, Vermont Studio Center, The Civita Institute and Mineral School. Special thanks to Megan Zimmerman for her encouragement on this essay. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com