Saturn’s Deep, Dark Secret

Titan, the only major body in the solar system that we haven’t gotten a good look at, is about to be outed.

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For Lebreton and the cadre of scientists who have coddled Cassini-Huygens through the years, “here” means approaching one of the watersheds of their lives, and some disquiet can be expected. François Raulin, a University of Paris professor who is Huygens’ senior chemist, speaks for the group when he is asked what happens if the mission flops. “I don’t want to think about that,” he answers flatly. What they can do from here on to avoid spectacular (if noble) failure or assure spectacular success is exactly nothing.

Charting the trajectory of a path-breaking space mission like Cassini-Huygens reveals a vivid paradox: Those who push the edges of mankind’s envelope must live by old-fashioned—certainly pre-Baby Boomer—principles of patience and dedication, soldiering on for decades in the face of technical and political obstacles, and living always with the significant chance that it won’t work—that all you will have for the best years of your life is a good, honorable try. Offsetting this insecurity, space scientists live with an old-fashioned faith: that they are part of a great venture whose ultimate success is inevitable, whether now or a generation hence.

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