BY TUMA HAJI
Star Trek story lines are guided by the Prime Directive, the idea that space explorers should avoid interfering or damaging developing civilizations or life. NASA adheres to this conceptual law when launching spacecrafts into the universe.
This adherence to the Prime Directive is, in a way, the reason why NASA decided to plunge its Cassini spacecraft into Saturn’s atmosphere. NASA has determined that Cassini may pose a contamination risk to Saturn’s moons. Launched on Oct. 15, 1997, Cassini may have carried microbes from Earth since the sterilization of spacecrafts is not 100 percent effective. It was the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and is attributed to the discovery of moonlets as well as the oceans on Enceladus and Titan, two moons believed to support life.
Charles Nelson, associate professor of astronomy at Drake University, explains that “the problem with Cassini is that it’s from the earth.”
“Which means that it’s got Earth stuff on it,” Nelson said. “And surprisingly enough, tests have been done to demonstrate that satellites that have been in orbit for many, many years come back and they’ve got microbes on them, and they didn’t get those microbes in space. The microbes were on them from the get go … They’ve been out in space, and they’re still alive.”
The implication is that even millions of years from now, Cassini could contaminate Saturn and its moons. After 20 years of providing invaluable data about the ringed planet, Cassini took a final and terminal plunge straight into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15.
During the spacecraft’s grand finale, which spanned the course of recent months, Cassini managed to accomplish a feat no space craft ever has: to enter Saturn’s Cassini Division, the largest gap between the planet’s rings. The spacecraft captured many pictures of Saturn’s surface, rings and its 53 moons. Nelson describes the spacecraft as an “absolute stunner” and explains that it began running out of fuel to continue orbiting Saturn for 13 years. He links NASA’s decision to end the risk of contamination to Star Trek’s conceptual law.
“If you’re a Star Trek fan, the thing that happens in every Star Trek movie is where they have the Prime Directive,” Nelson said. “The Prime Directive says that you will not interfere with any sort of developing civilization or planet that’s in a developmental state behind us. Of course, in every Star Trek episode, they violate the Prime Directive. That’s how they make good stories.”
However, in real space, NASA is striving to do good for all the universe. “Life,” for now, seems to refer more to smaller forms like bacteria rather than alien civilizations. Due to the possibility of existing life forms, contamination risks would ruin the chances of life being sustained without human interaction.
“We want to smash the thing,” Nelson said. “We want to make sure it burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere so that any microbes or genetic material which might hitch hike the way out there will be destroyed … to make sure those moons are perfectly pristine and uninfected.”
Early Friday morning, around 6:55 a.m. CT (in actuality, about an hour and 20 minutes beforehand since that’s how long it takes for the radio signals to reach Earth), Cassini plunged to its destruction and disintegration straight into Saturn’s gaseous atmosphere. The radio signals were Cassini’s last scientific contribution to our planet.
After 20 years of scientific service, Cassini is no longer in orbit, yet the pictures and data the spacecraft collected are invaluable to the study and observation of Saturn.
For students interested in learning about or observing Saturn and other planets, Nelson encourages students to attend the Drake Municipal Observatory community lectures on Friday nights at 8:00 p.m. The group looks at planets and constellations through telescopes, particularly Saturn since it is the most visible planet from Earth.