Weatherman's Whimsy: Saying so long to Saturn

Saturn from the Cassini Spacecraft

Who hasn't been fascinated by the planet Saturn? It's arguably the most interesting planet in our solar system, right? (Next to the one we live on, of course).

For me, it was always those amazing rings. That and the fact that the ringed giant has at least 62 moons! It sometimes makes me sad that it feels like the golden age of space exploration is long over. I really hope there's a new one ahead. Like many science geeks, I love the idea of exploring space. Going into space would be very high on my bucket list.

When I first visited the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta on one of my One Tank Trips, I was intrigued to find that the structural design for the complex was based on what architects imagined a future moon base would look like. After all, when they dedicated it 3 years after Armstrong's "One small step," we were still actively visiting the moon. Who could have imagined that we'd just lose interest and not go back for close to 45 years now?

Well, now it’s the Cassini spacecraft that goes into the category of space exploration history. Launched in 1997, it was part orbiter and part lander, a joint partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency.

Titan in orbit around Saturn

Cassini reached its destination seven years later, providing unprecedented views of those mysterious rings, moons and the storm-ravaged gas giant below. The orbiter actually landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, the only moon in our entire solar system with a substantial atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the orbiter has been cataloging, photographing and filming this fascinating celestial neighbor of ours for well over a decade. It made 294 orbits of Saturn and ventured nearly 5-billion miles. But those days are at an end.

Using Titan’s gravity, the Cassini took a final plunge into the planet itself early this morning. The cameras went dark yesterday, but Cassini’s final samples and other data will be transmitted back to Earth, to be poured over by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for some time to come.

Be sure to check social media, just a fledgling concept when Cassini was launched, for other details, pictures and descriptions.

Hopefully there will be more such experiments in the future, whether by NASA or privately funded organizations.

There’s a lot to see out there. I hope we won’t lose interest again.