On Friday, the Cassini probe will plunge to self-styled doom in Saturn’s atmosphere. Since its launch 20 years ago, the joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) has travelled a distance of 7.9 billion km, discovered six named moons. The vast volumes of data it has collected have spawned nearly 4,000 scientific papers. For the first time in a long while, the world is celebrating a triumph of technology: A 22-feet high machine is not part of a dystopian narrative, its intelligence (and of the man behind it) is from a time when machines represented the ingenuity of intellectual labour, not its demise.
The Cassini-Huygens Mission was conceived in the late 1980s — at the height of “star wars” — by NASA, the ESA and the Italian space agency. Its launch in 1997, though, was well after the fall of the Berlin Wall and yet its bold “mission to go where no man has gone before” would have made Gene Roddenberry (the liberal, pluralist creator of Star Trek) proud. It represents all that the European Enlightenment held dear, without the baggage that came with it — exploration without colonialism, a pursuit of knowledge made possible by the wealth of nations but not directly for commercial gain. Today, technology and the discourses around it are not so optimistic. The machine will not free us, lead us to new frontiers. AI will take over, and scientists warn of doomsday caused by climate change.
It is Cassini’s celestial partner — Saturn’s largest moon, Titan — that will cause its final demise. The probe has used Titan’s gravity to slingshot around Saturn to gather information, and that force will now be used to direct the probe to a safe destruction, away from moons that hold water, and hence the possibility of life. At least near the ends of our Solar System, technology and life still care for each other.