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Making sense of science spending

Cassini’s Grand Finale

Today marks the end of an era in space exploration, as the Cassini Mission to Saturn draws to a spectacular close. As always, we’re on hand with an infographic celebrating the space probe…and doing the hard sums about what it cost. Please share it far and wide!

As you’ll see in our infographic, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn for the last 13 years. Its final act was to place itself on a collision course with the planet which has been its home for over a decade. The mission will end with Cassini streaking through the Saturnian sky, a tumbling, white-hot interplanetary firework, in order to protect Saturn’s pristine moons from potential future contamination.

Cassini has generated enough data to keep scientists busy for years to come, measuring everything from chemistry to magnetic fields of Saturn and its entourage of icy moons. Not least amongst its instruments are two cameras, whose spectacular imagery has frequently left us earthlings gasping at the beauty of our cosmic backyard.

One of the key unquantifiable spin-outs of many kinds of research is pure wonder, and this mission has had it in spades: from icy geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, to this jaw-dropping backlit image of Saturn with Earth a sparkling speck in the background, Cassini has been an inspiration to scientists, non-scientists and future scientists alike. NASA also make all of their raw data freely available to anyone, with spectacular results: this picture of Saturn (which you may recognise from our infographic above!) was made by an amateur, whilst this unofficial video of raw data from Cassini’s cameras is eerily beautiful.

Artist’s impression of Cassini burning up as it enters Saturn’s atmosphere. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For hard-hearted cynics there have been plenty of more tangible spin-outs from Cassini as well. Slingshotting probes billions of miles across space with pinpoint accuracy often results in accidental technical innovation. And this was one hardy little piece of engineering: originally planned to last just four years in orbit, it’s basically fully functional after over three times that. There was even an unexpected economics spin-out: the internal market developed for the ‘Cassini Resource Exchange’, used to keep the spacecraft’s instrument development teams on budget, has since been used for trading pollution permits down here on Earth.

Finally, that money wasn’t just fired into space: it’s employed thousands of scientists and engineers, bolstering high-tech manufacturing in the US and Europe, and sending smart PhDs out into the workforce.

For inspiration value alone, Cassini could well be worth a handful of dollars per American and European, especially considering this spending was spread over three decades. The real tragedy of its epic demise isn’t the end of this amazing probe’s mission; it’s that, judging by the amounts we invest, humanity seems utterly unexcited about exploring the planets. For a few pounds, euros or dollar each, we can take our first steps into the vast cosmos, understand our origins, and lay the foundations for a spacefaring future. Instead, once Cassini signs off, there is no mission approaching this audacious even on the launchpad.

As we say goodbye to Cassini, it’s more important than ever that we explain how much missions like this matter.

Categories: blue-skies research

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