You Are Here; the Cassini Spacecraft Isn’t Anymore

Cassini died for our sins. Well, not really our sins, but our germs. Cassini‘s momentous discovery that Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan may harbor life doomed it to die a fiery death on the very planet it had spent the last twenty years exploring. Scientists involved in the epic mission are devastated…and so are space enthusiasts everywhere.

Via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, Public Domain.
The earth seen from Saturn, taken by the late, great spacecraft Cassini. Via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, Public Domain.

Cassini has been running out of fuel for years. Without a gas station in sight, scientists couldn’t take a chance that the bus-sized spacecraft might contaminate the potentially inhabited moons of the ringed planet.

We’re not talking about little green Saturnians. They could be more like green slime. Even if more complex, it’s unlikely that there would be any recruits for a future neighborhood watch meeting.

Via Wikimedia, Public Domain.
Via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Or, a confederation of planets out of Star Trek.

When we think of other life in the galaxy, our minds automatically drift toward bipedal aliens with two arms, hands, and legs. Though they may be gray or green and their fingers elongated, they basically conform to overall humanoid body scheme.

In other words, aliens are ready-made for a human actor with prosthetic appliances or a CGI overlay.

But I think this shows an even more basic bias. Do you really believe intelligence is the be-all and end-all of life? Think about all the magnificently adapted species here on earth.

Cephalopods are smarter than the average invertebrate, though you won’t see them building a mollusc version of Cassini, a tool in each tentacles. Still, watch an octopus disappear as it deploys their natural cloaking system in a blink of an eye. It’s a fascinating tribute to the power of natural selection.

How anthropoidist of you think you’re more evolved than these marvels of evolutionary adaptations.

Sharks have been around for about 450 million years. They may not be the sharpest tooth in the jaw, but they’re exquisitely well-adapted killing machines. So are my (indoor) cats.

The fact is there are a zillion different ways to be evolutionarily successful that don’t involve intelligence. Yes, I value intelligence highly. It has been the key our species’ success. But also possibly its downfall.

Given that life evolved relatively early in the history of our planet, about half a billion years after the earth formed — a blink of the eye on the cosmic scale — it seems to me that life isn’t really that hard to evolve in its most basic forms.

Add water and a mix of organic molecules, stir, place in an Easy Bake oven and voila — simple single-celled organisms. Well-adapted complex organisms on the order of the cephalopods are probably common, as well. But human-level or above intelligent species?

Probably somewhere. Well, maybe. There’s always the Fermi paradox to consider. That’s the proposition Enrico Fermi made half in jest over lunch one day. If the galaxy is teeming with intelligent life, where are they?

The Cassini Paradox

There are are almost as many theories to explain the Fermi paradox as there are planets in potentially habitable zones in the Milky Way. I suspect that it’s a mix of factors, but among them is the fact that there are so many ways to be a successful species that don’t involve superintelligence.

Cassini spacecraft
Cassini, pre-launch, via NASA, Public Domain.

It’s estimated that there are five million trillion trillion bacteria on earth. Four out of five animals on earth is a roundworm. Intelligent life doesn’t even rule our planet. (Though you may often wonder if intelligent life exists here at all.)

Many persuasively argue that investing in space missions like Cassini can’t be justified while children are starving right here on earth. It’s hard for any humanist to counter this profoundly humanist sentiment.

Still, the odds are slim that the money poured into NASA and the European Space Agency would instead be used to feed the hungry and lift up the impoverished. It would instead be poured into some other grand, ego-enhancing projects.

Or invested in human-killing military technology. The potential for intelligent species to off themselves is one of the most prominent of Great Filter theories. And we’re certainly doing a bang-up job of destroying our climate.

Indeed, some argue that we have no choice but to pursue space exploration as we increasing make our home planet uninhabitable. Maybe it’s sentimentality, but I’d rather try to salvage our pale blue dot and as many of the species on it as possible.

Even the round worms.

Others favor more manned space missions with astronauts. Yet, far more has been learned from the Hubble space telescope and Cassini than could ever be learned by a handful of exorbitantly expensive mission, their price tag bloated by the need to ensure the safety of those smart apes.

However, one argument rarely advanced for Cassini-type space probes is their potential to creationists and other science deniers spin like a Dervish. If — or when — a successor mission to Saturn discovers life, I can’t wait to hear the science denialists attempt to justify their Bronze Age beliefs.

Maybe life will be discovered in the methane lakes of Titan or around the ice plumes of Enceladus. We didn’t even know to look until the Cassini mission.

For this science-loving humanist, there’s no paradox in wanting to improve lives on earth with seek knowledge and potential life in the solar system and beyond.

Cassini gave its life for science. It’s up to humans to dedicate themselves to improving life here at home.


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