News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 9 to 10 a.m.
Environment & Science

Goodbyes are always hard: A Cassini engineer looks back




File photo of Saturn.
File photo of Saturn.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Listen to story

07:43
Download this story 7.0MB

Well, the curtains have finally been drawn on the Cassini mission.

After a more than decade-long exploration of Saturn and its moons, the space probe ran out of fuel and crashed landed into the giant gas plant. 

Cassini launched in 1997 and reached the second-largest planet about seven years later, helping scientists answer key questions about Saturn and our solar system in general.

After 20 years, you can’t blame those involved with the mission for feeling a little sentimental about it ending — even engineers who weren't there from Day One are sad to see it go.

Joan Stupik was one of the youngest engineers involved. In fact, this mission kicked off her career four years ago. She worked as a guidance and control engineer for Cassini, a job that entailed positioning satellites and cameras that made it possible for us to learn everything along with it. 

She spoke with Take Two's A Martinez to reflect on how much of an impact the space probe has had on the science community. 

Here are some interview highlights: 

Your first project is this one. And its over: 

It's definitely very emotional and I like to say that I was born the same year as Cassini. It was funded by NASA in 1989, which is the same year I was born. It's been around my entire life and the fact that it's over now is emotional but the fact that I got to participate in one of NASA's most successful missions is something that makes me really proud.

In its 20-year span, what would you say is the biggest moment for Cassini? 

I think the biggest scientific discovery was the fact that there's liquid water out way further in the solar system than we ever expected. Specifically the moon Enceledus, which has a liquid water ocean underneath a thick ice crust and actually spews ice dust out into space. And I think that was the biggest surprise for scientists.

Why? 

Based on the scientific understanding of the solar system and where we expect liquid water to be, Enceledus had no right to have liquid water on it. It sort of made the scientists have to throw their models out the window a little and come up with other reasons. 

When that happened, what was the reaction in the scientific community? 

Well, I was in high school so I wasn't around for that. In general, when scientists find something wrong, they get excited about it. It means they get to discover more things about the universe. 

What has been the biggest moment for you and your four years? 

I think the first taste of big scientific discovery. Four years until the end of the mission, there weren't too many firsts left but there was one specific moon called Pan that we first got photographs of just a few months ago. Scientists were a little surprised that it ended up looking like a ravioli. That was the first time I got to see scientists running around and say "Have you seen this yet?!" It was kind of fun because I'm on the team that helps take photographs and so I was able to point it out and be like, "Yeah! I took that picture."

One hundred years from now people are going to be looking at your work and what you did. 

That's something that's really awesome to think about. The director of JPL mentioned that we wrote the textbooks on Saturn. All of the information that scientists know about Saturn comes from Cassini and from our work. The next big mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa, is going to be pulling a lot of knowledge, especially engineering knowledge, from how we operated and built Cassini. 

Explain something for us. Cassini was sent crashing into Saturn on purpose. Why was that? 

Cassini was a victim of its own success. We were not expecting to find liquid water that far out in the solar system. So we didn't put the spacecraft through the rigorous cleaning methods that we would have, had we known. Once we got there and realized that there were these places where life could exist, there are international treaties that say we have to make sure we protect them. There were a few different options that we could've done to make sure that we never accidentally crashed into one of them and getting in real close to Saturn towards the end and then plunging it into its atmosphere was the unanimous decision among scientists. 

How much more could Cassini have discovered had it stayed around a bit longer?

In terms of looking for life, it was in fact at its limit. Since we didn't know that there was going to be liquid water out there, we didn't bring the science instrument to actually look for the more complex amino acids. Hindsight is 20/20, right? We didn't know we were going to need it. 

Now that the Cassini mission is over, Stupik will move on to the next task: Looking for signs of life on Jupiter's moon, Europa.