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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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OMG, we just nuked Saturn!

18 September 2017

The Cassini probe that has delivered so much fantastic scientific data about Saturn and its moons is gone.

The complex craft with its ultra-sophisticated (for their day) instruments and communications systems are now just a tiny smudge in the atmosphere of the ringed planet, more than 1.2 billion kilometers away from its launch-point here on earth.

The decision was made to de-orbit Cassini in a controlled fashion into Saturn's atmosphere so as not to risk the possible contamination of the potentially life-bearing moons of that planet.

But hang on.. .didn't the Huygens probe, complete with potentially viable earth bacteria onboard, already land on Titan and send us some of the most underrated images ever seen from outside our own planet?

Perhaps they had an uh-oh moment when they saw the rivers and streams of Titan and then decided "we'd better not do this again!" so opted to let the fiery heat of a high-speed encounter with Saturn's atmosphere destroy any similar organisms that might be clinging to Cassini.

Phew... the day saved! But hang on, do you know what we (the earth) has actually done in performing this maneuver?

We've just dropped a dirty nuke on one of our planetary neighbours!

Okay, 32 kilos of plutonium 238 probably won't raise the radioactivity of Saturn by *any* perceptible amount and the level of radiation it carries probably pales into insignificance against the background of gamma radiation already striking the planet -- but it's the principle of the thing :-)

Can we be absolutely sure that dumping a dirty-nuke on a planet this size which we believe to be devoid of any life is okay?

Let me go all scifi for a moment...

What if there is some form of (perhaps unrecognisable to us) life residing within the hydrogen/helium atmosphere of Saturn and what if our dirty nuke has destroyed some of that life?

Or... what if some other, far more developed an sophisticated intelligence (maybe even from outside the solar-system) is watching what's going on and sees this dirty-nuke strike on a neighbour as an act of unprovoked aggression?

Yeah, unlikely I know... but then again, the chances that a combination of stardust and energy would eventually combine to create human DNA and the life we enjoy on this planet is also incredibly unlikely -- yet it happened.

I wonder if, before we go any further in terms of our planetary exploration, we need to consider the important aspects of what happens to our probes once they're spent.

Do we just leave them to litter the galaxy (like Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are doing) -- in the same way we might discard an empty fish and chip wrapper on the footpath late on a Friday night?

Or do we use them as bombs or missiles to impact foreign worlds -- without an absolute assurance that in doing so, we're not harming some other form of life?

Interesting questions.

I'm pretty sure that right now there will be plenty of people who'll say "there is no life on Mars or Saturn or Jupiter so what the hell?". I think that this would be incredibly naive. All we should say is that "we know of no life" on these planets -- but life may not always be something we recognise. The life we attack could be so different to our own that we completely fail to identify it as life at all.

Remember... the fact that life of earth-origin could possibly have survived the 20 years that Cassini has spent in space speaks volumes to the tenacity of life and its ability to flourish in even the most unlikely of environments -- doesn't it?

No, I'm not suggesting that we stop our exploration of space... hell no -- I'd much rather see us boost these programmes and find out more about the universe around us. However, I really do think we're perhaps not paying enough attention to some of the details.

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