003: Cassini: The Bigger Picture

Uncommon Sense: the This is True Podcast show

Summary: In This Episode: From California, where I came to see and reflect on the End of Mission for the Cassini spacecraft — its so-called Grand Finale. This isn’t about the mission per se, but rather the thinking behind it, how that fits into True’s mission, and how that ties into this week’s Honorary Unsubscribe! In other words, The Bigger Picture.<br> <br> <a class="twitter-share-button" href="https://twitter.com/share?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">Tweet</a><br> <a href="#transcript">Jump to Transcript</a><br> <a href="https://thisistrue.com/category/podcasts/">How to Subscribe and List of All Episodes</a><br> Show Notes<br> <br> * JPL’s <a href="https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov">Cassini mission site</a>.<br> * The Honorary Unsubscribe for <a href="http://www.honoraryunsubscribe.com/jerry_pournelle.html">polymath writer Jerry Pournelle</a>.<br> * Yeah, he’s real: the story of the <a href="https://thisistrue.com/duct_tape_robber/">Duct Tape Robber</a>.<br> * The several illustrations I mention are below, intermingled in the <a href="#transcript">transcript</a>.<br> <br> <a name="transcript"></a><br> Transcript<br> After being out of town all last week, I’m re-recording a fan favorite episode from the first season that helps show why I’m so enthusiastic about exploring space, whether we’re exploring via humans in space, or robots. Because either way, it takes a lot of Uncommon Sense to make the missions successful.<br> I traveled to southern California for the End of Mission of the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Now, I’m not going to give you an exhaustive list of the Cassini mission’s accomplishments, as amazing as those are: if you want that, just about every science-related publication or TV program or web site can pile a ton of data and gorgeous photos on you. I’m not going to try to compete on their turf even if I did start my career as a science writer. Instead, I’m going to tell you some behind the scenes stuff in hopes that you’ll see a much bigger picture.<br> Unless you’re driving or something as you listen to this, you might want to pull up the Show Page for this episode since I’ll refer to a few things there. That page is thisistrue.com/podcast3<br> When Cassini was being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, every few weeks I’d use some of my lunch hour to walk down to the gallery overlooking the clean room to watch the techs working on integrating all the scientific instruments into Cassini before launch. It took years, since it was a big and very complex spacecraft: 6.8 meters high, 4 meters wide — or 22 by 13 feet. It held 12 science instruments. Not just the obvious cameras, but a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields; imaging radar; multiple kinds of spectrometers to learn the composition of things like plasma, Saturn’s rings, and ions; a cosmic dust analyzer; and more.<br> The resulting package — the spacecraft — was huge! I took a lot of photos during my visits, which are in a box …somewhere. But the official photographers could be in the clean room once they dressed up in those bunny suits, so I’ll put a JPL photo on the Show Page so you can see just how big the thing was. All together, with fuel, it weighed 5,600 kg, or 12,300 lb. — more than six tons. So it’s pretty much bigger and heavier than a fully loaded commercial delivery van.<br> And that loaded van was launched on October 15, 1997, about 15 months after I left JPL to work on This is True full time. Saturn, depending on where it is in its orbit, is about 1.2 to 1.7 billion kilometers away from Earth,