A Eulogy for Cassini
So I submit this: Cassini is years and years of hard human work. Cassini is the seed of an idea. Cassini is a reminder that those ideas can be tremendous spring traps — that ideas alone hold tremendous consequences for the physical world and how we activate our presence in its field of possibilities.
This past week I attended the women’s semifinals at the US Open in Queens, where I watched Venus Williams compete against Sloane Stephens. I rooted for Venus, because I knew about her — because I was familiar with her long, famous story — and because I wanted to see a female athlete in her late thirties come back and win the title again. I was fascinated by Sloane, too, because of her own trials — because of her injuries, and her perseverance, her ability to rise through the ranks of tennis even as an unseeded player. Sloane and Venus both had compelling, interesting narratives that landed both players on the court that cool dry evening in early September. Both of those women had come through difficult circumstances, trials, tests, etc. to arrive at that point, and one of them had to lose. The match was by turns delightfully entertaining and frustrating. My husband was leaping out of his seat, practically screaming at times— a great set of tennis rises with each return, one after the other, gaining momentum as both players tear back and forth across the court, returning the ball, lobbing it across the net, executing their private strategies. And with each return the tension rises, because sooner or later the audience knows it will end. As each player demonstrates talent and mastery, we grow frustrated and anxious about who will lose, because we know deeply we want to see neither lose for the amount of effort wasted.
Cassini is years of lobbing the ball back and forth across the court, through nations, organizations, politics, finance, space, planets, rings and time. Cassini is the location of all those efforts piling on top of each other, realizing its mission against those obstacles. It is an intention which began as an idea that took on a life of its own through the functions of international governance and the instrumentation of human intelligence, skill, physical capabilities and pure will. That human beings dreamt it, Cassini now floats above a gas giant millions of miles from Earth, awaiting its own end.
I revisited Holst’s suite The Planets the day I read about Cassini’s fate — movement five: “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.” Holst’s view of Saturn is intriguing and playful, aping its personality more from the Roman god after which the planet was named than the very giant itself. It begins quietly, transforming into a regal march that resolves with a bright, brassy fanfare. It bears the masculine brand of space exploration, a Victorian scientific confidence in progress which sounds more like raiding jungle ruins than pondering the nickel-iron core hidden beneath miles of dense metallic hydrogen. What now feels most appropriate for Cassini — its long, quiet gestation, the launch, the slow approach and the aching, lonely years spent living in a beautiful, isolated region of unforgiving space before a handsomely tragic death — I thought instead of Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde. It’s an unbound, emotional piece of romantic German opera from the 1850s used liberally throughout Lars Von Trier’s own planetary tragedy, Melancholia. It feels fitting. It’s grandiose and longing. It evokes the pain of being alive and feeling, of pouring energy into an endeavor which must inevitably end in heartbreak.
Cassini observes a part of the universe unintended for us. It is perhaps the strangest part about the gas giants — not just in the way we see worlds like Venus or Mars, or even mysterious exoplanets out there in Kepler and Trappist. Being human, we search for familiar life and habitats on other worlds which may sustain us, but there is nothing for us on Jupiter and Saturn. There’s no “life as we know it” way out underneath the foggy velvet blue of Uranus’ dense troposphere. There’s only gas and matter boiling over itself thoughtlessly, without aim or purpose, obeying physical laws and properties. There’s benefit to science, surely — a greater understanding of our solar system, its worlds and how they work. But the thought of it boggles the mind a bit; tremendous, heavy pressures, searing heat, rapid atoms pouring about madly with nothing to live in them — just being, with or without the human eye to observe it. There’s an observable universe we cannot presently see with our own eyes, doing its own thing anyway. Where Cassini is now, the days are unlike ours. It provides us a window into that reality, reminds us the universe does not require our participation to exist.
Cassini, tiny lens, telegraphing images of a place without life. Today it dies a private death we cannot witness.