In awe of the 'Cassini' mission

The Cassini Launch. Photo: Ian Griffin
The Cassini launch. Photo: Ian Griffin

In this week's Skywatch, Ian Griffin tells of his experience with the Cassini mission.

It's not often you get to witness the start of a voyage of interplanetary exploration, but almost 20 years ago, that's exactly what I did. 

I was working in Florida as the manager of a science centre, a stone's throw from the Kennedy Space Centre, home port to Nasa's space missions.

Ian Griffin
Ian Griffin
As manager of the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory, I had a key that allowed me access at any time of day or night, and that's why at 4.43am on October 15, 1997, I was alone on the roof, starting an exposure on my camera as the Cassini mission blasted off.

Any launch from ''The Cape'' is spectacular, but night launches are spectacular squared. When Cassini's powerful rocket engines ignited, a previously calm Florida night was transformed into day as she rose skywards atop a blazing yet silent column of light.

I watched awestruck as Cassini silently curved upwards towards the stars. And then, about a minute after launch, the sound wave arrived, and my previously silent observing platform vibrated with the colossal forces of Cassini's violent escape from Earth's gravity.

Cassini's multi-billion-kilometre journey to Saturn took seven years, and involved gravitational slingshot manoeuvres past Venus (twice) and Earth before arriving at her destination.

Since 2004, Cassini has revolutionised our understanding of the Saturnian system and has returned some truly remarkable images of the solar system's most beautiful planet.

My Cassini reflections are born from the fact that, at 9.54pm (Australian eastern standard time) on Friday, September 15, Cassini's mission will end, when she burns up 1530km above Saturn's icy cloud tops.

Thanks to Nasa, I'm going to be at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex when her final message reaches Earth. I witnessed her departure and I shall witness her fiery death.

Over the past 20 years, my life has changed; I've moved from Florida to Auckland to England and now I live in Dunedin. But in that same time, the team operating Cassini has changed the way we view this beautiful ring world. I'm humbled by their achievement.


Add a Comment