Today’s Post is by guest blogger Mike S. 

At 4:43 am on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens space probe was launched to Saturn.  Despite using the largest rocket available at the time, the spacecraft was so heavy that it was impossible to carry enough fuel to fly directly there.  Instead of heading away from the sun, the launch took place in the opposite direction.  Cassini flew inward, getting a slingshot boost by passing close to Venus.  It orbited the sun a single time, then got another slingshot boost from passing Venus yet again.  It swung past Earth (coming as close as 727 miles from the surface) getting a 12,000 mph boost, and received one last giant boost from passing Jupiter in December 2000, traveling as fast as 32 km/sec, or 71,000 mph.

Finally, the probe reached Saturn on June 30, 2004.  This was a crucial time.  To be captured in orbit around Saturn, it had to reach a very specific spot and fire it’s engines for an exact amount of time.  If it came too close to Saturn, it would crash into the planet.  If it passed too far away, it would sail on past the planet and out of the solar system.  To hit the perfect spot, it actually had to pass through a gap in the rings themselves.  Making matters more complicated, Saturn is so far away that radio waves traveling at the speed of light took 83 minutes to reach Earth.  Therefore, all of the commands had to be sent ahead of time, and it took nearly 1-1/2 hours afterward to see if Cassini survived or whether it crashed into a rock in the rings.  It successfully entered orbit.

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, on December 25, 2004, Cassini released a smaller probe named Huygens.  Huygens was designed to land on Titan, one of the moons around Saturn, nearly 3 weeks later.  But there were several issues.  At the time Huygens was released from Cassini, which slowly backed away, Titan was on the other side of Saturn.   So, Cassini had to be lined up with where Titan was “going” to be.  Also, Huygens was completely unpowered and simply had to coast for three weeks before reaching Titan.  This, too, was a success.  Huygens parachuted down, landed successfully on Titan, and sent data and pictures back to Cassini, which relayed them back to Earth.

Since then, Cassini has continued to provide tremendous information and amazing pictures from Saturn.  Check them out!

To me, this is simply amazing.  The beauty of this approaches an intricately choreographed ballet or a painted masterpiece.  The level of understanding of our solar system and the universe needed to successfully launch and steer a spacecraft along a 2.2 billion mile path, past Venus twice, the Earth and Jupiter once each, and into an orbit around Saturn is astounding.  Along the way, the spacecraft provided the best confirmation yet of Einstein’s theory of relativity.  It is incredible.

Not too long ago, however, this mission would have been seen as a modern tower of Babel.  Galileo and others were persecuted by the church for proposing that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.  According to tradition and accepted teachings, it was clear and obvious that the Earth was the center of everything and that Man was God’s crowning creation.  It was blasphemous to suggest that we were merely on a speck of a rock circling the sun.  The scriptures told us that the “sun stood still”.  These people were questioning religious authority so it must have been the work of Satan.  So a proposal to actually send a spacecraft to Saturn and land a probe on a body not orbiting the earth but another planet was heresy.

It seems so obvious in hindsight.  Of course the earth orbits the sun.  Of course the universe is vast.  And at the end of it all, people still believe in God and Christ.  The plan of salvation didn’t change based upon what orbited what.  The issue became a non-issue.

While the issues change, the topic still comes up in our day.  We all bring to every issue our own personal feelings, experiences, backgrounds, etc.  And this happens at every level, from a newly baptized 8-year-old girl talking about dinosaurs to the highest level of our hierarchy.  In 1961, while still an apostle, Joseph Fielding Smith said, “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.”  Since then, we have had Mormon astronauts who have certainly had different opinions.

So, how do we make sense of this?  Are there ways to reconcile religion and science?  Are there things science can learn from religion and vice versa?  Are there insights from religion that we are just now finding out in the scientific world?  Yes, to all of these.

This is the first essay of a multi-part series.  Future topics will include:

  • How do we determine scientific truth?
  • How do we determine religious truth?
  • How do we integrate these two ways of finding truth?  What do WE believe?
  • Primers: what are strings or light-years or anything else
  • The big: cosmology, Big Bang, galaxies, star-stuff, planets, etc.
  • The small: atoms, quarks, intelligences, spirits, multi-dimensions, etc.
  • The in-between: us, DNA, scientific faith, evolution, etc.

There are some fascinating insights into science and Joseph Smith, LDS teachings, Eastern religions, traditional teachings, etc.  There will be areas that make sense to most of us.  There will be areas where we will all agree to disagree.  I may change my mind about different things.  You may change yours.  At the end of the day, however, we will all hopefully know a little bit more about this amazing world and universe as well as our profound role on this little speck of blue orbiting around an insignificant star on a small arm of a moderately sized galaxy wandering through our neck of the universe.  It’s really cool.

Questions:

  • Does this sound like an interesting series to bring forward?
  • Are there any topics you would like brought up in a future post?
  • What level of science should I include, basic up through graduate (or both)?