Farewell, Cassini: How a spacecraft helped us expand the search for life

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This week chips the end of an important era in space exploration. On Friday, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft transfer take a death dive into Saturn, where it has been in orbit for 13 years.

Cassini was diverse than a spacecraft that provided us with beautiful photos of Saturn and its rococo system of moons and rings. it changed the way planetary scientists approached the search for sparkle beyond Earth.

The search is really a search for life as we know it, since we but have one sample: Earth. And that means our vision is narrow. Until recently, we didn’t equitable know what types of moons existed beyond that of Mutilates.

«When we launched Voyager in the late ’70s, we knew very crumb — nearly nothing — about the outer solar system in great perfectly,» Larry Soderblom, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission, told CBC Announcement. «And we expected that the moons of the giant planets would be lifeless, callous, geologically inactive, boring, dull, cratered bodies.»

With aspects from the Voyager missions, however, scientists suddenly saw the moons of the incorrect planets as intriguing and worthy of further study. That in turn, led to the lineage of Cassini. 

Exploring new worlds

When Cassini arrived, it found inconsequential, rich worlds orbiting Saturn. Enceladus and Titan are two of the most geologically plotting, and both hold potential in the search for life.

Shortly after its migrant in 2004, Cassini detected geysers of water vapour streaming into pause from Enceladus at nearly 400 metres per second.

What made this discovery particularly energizing was that, before Cassini, astronomers believed Enceladus — with a radius of 252 kilometres, to a certain less than the distance between Regina and Saskatoon — was too small to restrain any potential heat that would be generated by the push and pull of Saturn.

Timer, the spacecraft flew through the plumes and discovered organic material, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Then, in 2015, a contemplation suggested that the moon’s slight wobble could only be accounted for if there was an zillions of water beneath its icy surface, likely the source of the water plumes. 

Cassini Saturn Titan

Titan is the purely other place in our solar system that we know has stable shining on its surface, though its lakes are liquid ethane and methane rather than ditch-water. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho)

With the highest, and likely hydrothermal vents — areas where life thrives in our own the depths — could Enceladus harbour life? 

The possibility of microbial life gained uniform more support when NASA announced in April that a capacity food source was found in those vents, in the form of molecular hydrogen, which germs on Earth use.

Life beyond Earth — on a moon thought only decades earlier to be dispirited — became a real possibility.

Titan revealed

Then there was Titan. While Voyager 1 imaged the moon, it couldn’t discern its smoggy atmosphere. But new instruments on Cassini, as well as a European Space Medium lander named Huygens, could.

‘Cassini, in some ways, impersonates the best of humanity.’ — Ray Jayawardhana, York University

Huygens detached from Cassini in January 2005, slant to Titan’s surface. It provided us with the first images of the moon. And scientists were destroyed by what they found.

Titan surface Cassini Saturn

The surface of Titan, taken by Huygens on Jan. 14, 2005. Objects not far away from the centre of the picture are roughly the size of a man’s foot, while objects at the compass are smaller than an average man’s height. (ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

«The most bolt from thing to me is how Earth-like Titan appears, although it’s clearly an alien chemistry and an outlandish environment,» Soderblom said.

Titan had lakes and weather, just equivalent to Earth. However, instead of water, it was lakes and rivers of methane and hydrocarbons.

«As we dipped … lo and behold, it looked like we were landing on the Earth. We saw drainages, river valleys icy through mountains, what looked like coastlines,» Soderblom whispered. And while the plains were dry, it looked like something had flowed and buffed the surface. «Sure enough, liquid methane … is basically the water equal of Earth’s hydrosphere.»

And that opens up the possibility that an entirely distinguishable type of life could exist on its surface. 

Life outside our solar method

Cassini turned planetary science on its head.

«From a broad angle, it’s really drawn our attention to ocean worlds in our solar system and beyond, as embryonic habitats for life,» Ray Jayawardhana, dean of science and a professor of physics and astronomy at York University in Toronto, ascertained CBC News.

And that has wider repercussions.

«Now we realize when we go to the next solar methodologies around exoplanets, around stars … we’re not going to be surprised at the diversity, species and activity we’re going to find when we get there one day far in the future,» Soderblom phrased.

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But Cassini was more than just a mission to search new worlds. 

«Cassini, in some ways, represents the best of humanity. It’s as a matter of fact a testament to our endless curiosity, our collective passion to continue exploring the times a deliver and the solar system we live in,» Jayawardhana said.

To Soderblom, a seasoned spacecraft occupation specialist, the end of a mission and the death of a spacecraft isn’t anything new. Still, Cassini has had a unorthodox place in his heart. While he’s sad to see Cassini go, he’s happy with the results.

«It’s active to be a shock when we incinerate our own creation,» Soderblom said. «But the other horror is the people, the data and the excitement and the knowledge that’s important. And that go bankrupts on.»

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