Sep 14, 2017

Meet one of the people who got us to Saturn

Photo Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

On Friday, the 20-year-long Cassini mission to Saturn will end. The spacecraft has flown through the planet's rings and discovered subterranean oceans on its moons. To protect the moons from the risk of being contaminated, it will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere and disintegrate. Axios spoke with scientist and engineer Jo Pitesky, who has been with the project for 13 years, about Cassini's discoveries and what it means to be part of a decades-long space mission.

The highlights:

  • The end: The spacecraft's final moments will be scientifically invaluable and the information gained will be "incredibly precious," says Pitesky. "There could be no better requiem for [Cassini]."
  • The feeling: "You think you know what this stuff is going to look like, and then it just knocks your socks off. I don't think any of us will ever, ever, ever get tired of that."
  • What's next: "I fully expect that there will be any number of science surprises coming from Cassini's dataset for decades."

More of that conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

What can we learn from Cassini's last moments?

There will be some photos, but that pales compared to the data we'll get about the composition of Saturn's upper atmosphere. We've dipped our toes into it, but we haven't had an atmospheric probe yet. And we might not get one — a real one — for another couple decades. So getting this information is just incredibly precious, we have nothing else like it in the entire mission.

What are some of your favorite Cassini findings?

One of the wonderful things NASA does is create these enormous flagship projects which are just bristling with instruments and capability. They're able to discover things that we've never imagined.

I think everybody's favorite has to be the liquid water oceans below the surfaces of at least two of Saturn's icy moons. And, you know, you never know what else you'll find. I fully expect that there will be any number of science surprises coming from Cassini's dataset for decades.

Some of Cassini's images changed our view of the solar system when they came out. When was the first time photographs of other planets changed your understanding of space?

I have this thought a lot, actually. I remember when I was maybe in high school? Middle school? And the first images from the Voyager flyby of Jupiter came back. It went from being this round stripy ball to being modern art.

Sometimes, in planetary science things change, just like that. And suddenly our understanding and view of the solar system changes, and you can't go back. There are so many moments where I look at Cassini images and I'm struck. You think you know what this stuff is going to look like, and then it just knocks your socks off. I don't think any of us will ever, ever, ever get tired of that.

You've worked on Cassini for over half its life. What's it like to be part of such a long-lived space mission?

It is a tremendous thing. We are so fortunate to be involved in something that is one of the best things humanity can do. To be able to explore, to be able to represent us as a country and as a species, it's an incredible thing.

This is a project that stretches across generations and countries. I first came to JPL when I was 11 years old, brought by a family friend named Fred Scarf. That's when I knew this was where I wanted to work. He was a mentor until he died in his late 50s. So it was a shock to me, a few years ago, when I saw a proposal to send a long-lived mission to Saturn. It was dated from the early 1980s. And one of the names on it was Fred Scarf.

So here I am, three decades later. Helping to finish a mission that he never lived to see launch. When I say that these missions stretch across generations, it's not an exaggeration.

This requiem for Cassini seems like a unique occurrence. Most other spacecraft just kind of keep going into space. Or crash. This has an end date, and it's not from an accident. Is that a strange feeling?

It is, it's a very strange feeling. And yet, there can be no better end for the spacecraft and the mission. The Grand Finale lets us do science that is utterly unique, that we could never have done otherwise. There could be no better requiem for her.

Cassini is a her?

Well, all ships are she, you know? Some say spacecraft shouldn't be anthropomorphized, but obviously, I know that she is a she.

But you know, it makes sense to think of them that way. These craft are extensions of us. They are us. And we put onto them all of our capabilities and hopes and dreams and mistakes. And we send them into space.

So what will you be doing when Cassini ends? Where will you be?

I'll be gathered with almost all the flight team, a lot of alumni, friends and family. We'll be watching. And we'll be crying, because she's been part of our lives for so long.

My two daughters, who are 24 and 21, will be there as well. I have a picture of the youngest from when Cassini arrived in orbit at Saturn. She's a little kid, sitting there with a Burger King Cassini toy, wearing a purple shirt — the official farewell color for Cassini, though we didn't know it then. And now she's a senior in college. And she'll be at this gathering, wearing a purple shirt again.

And she can't remember a time when Cassini hasn't been in space?

No. Cassini has always been there.

Go deeper

Updated 37 mins ago - Health

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

New Zealand has a single novel coronavirus case after reporting a week of no new infections, the Ministry of Health confirmed on Friday local time.

By the numbers: Nearly 6 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 2.3 million have recovered from the virus. Over 357,000 people have died globally. The U.S. has reported the most cases in the world with over 1.6 million.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 8:30 p.m. ET: 5,803,416 — Total deaths: 359,791 — Total recoveries — 2,413,576Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 8:30 p.m. ET: 1,720,613 — Total deaths: 101,573 — Total recoveries: 399,991 — Total tested: 15,646,041Map.
  3. Public health: The mystery of coronavirus superspreaders.
  4. Congress: Pelosi slams McConnell on stimulus delay — Sen. Tim Kaine and wife test positive for coronavirus antibodies.
  5. World: Twitter slapped a fact-check label on a pair of months-old tweets from a Chinese government spokesperson that falsely suggested that the coronavirus originated in the U.S.
  6. 2020: The RNC has issued their proposed safety guidelines for its planned convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  7. Axios on HBO: Science fiction writers tell us how they see the coronavirus pandemic.
  8. 🏃‍♀️Sports: Boston Marathon canceled after initial postponement, asks runners to go virtual.
  9. What should I do? When you can be around others after contracting the coronavirus — Traveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  10. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

2 hours ago - World

The eye of the COVID-19 storm shifts to Latin America

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic has moved from China to Europe to the United States and now to Latin America.

Why it matters: Up until now, the pandemic has struck hardest in relatively affluent countries. But it's now spreading fastest in countries where it will be even harder to track, treat and contain.