NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens Owner’s Workshop Manual: 1997-2017 by Ralph Lorenz (book review).

Something that becomes apparent from reading this book, ‘NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens Owner’s Workshop Manual: 1997-2017’ by Ralph Lorenz, is how far our computer technology has advanced since the spacecraft/probe was sent to Saturn. I suspect it’s going to haunt ever more space missions the further we send them.

The name ‘Cassini-Hyygens’ is derived from two 17th century scientist astronomers, the Dutch Christiaan Huygens and the Italian/French Giovanni Domenico ‘Jean-Dominique’ Cassini who discovered Saturn and its rings respectively. The mechanism isn’t a single entity but the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens probe which was dropped off at the moon Titan. At the time of its construction, NASA was sorely under budget and the Challenger disaster didn’t help, so its construction and scientific equipment came from 14 countries making this a truly international operation. I only hope that reflects in the media with its last duties and destruction. Reading this book, you can’t help but feel it is a scientific time capsule and how far computer-tech has developed in the past 20 years.

The cover illustration belies the size of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft because it’s the largest probe sent out into the Solar system at over 22 feet tall. When you see what is put into it, everything still had to be compact with alternative plans for use from a back-up energy source. What I was also surprised at was the computer tech was solid state as I thought that happened a few years after it left. Considering how the price of solid state hard drives has dropped in recent years and many of use in USB, again we are catching or caught up with space tech in its advances.

There’s a lot of technology to digest but there are some things you will connect to. Take the Cassini’s videocard. Things have moved on in the past 20 years and people have as well, making understanding of it a lot harder. Think of the adjustment you have to make when you get a new computer, even one without an extra videocard inside and then having to go back and use an old one. I do have to wonder why people didn’t practice with a ground-based system but it must certainly be making hardware manufacturers think how they can build videocards for the likes of NASA that won’t age so much.

The biggest surprise was the problems caused when the signal test in the asteroid belt was carried out and the return signals were distorted. This was sorted out when the Doppler effect was taken into effect. I can’t recall reading this with other spacecraft that far out but when you consider the speed the Cassini is travelling at, especially now when orbiting Saturn, it’s an important learning curve why you don’t want to receive a continuous signal.

This same Doppler effect created problems for the Huygens probe when it was left to collect data from the moon Titan. Lorenz says this part was a successful mission but I think I must be reading it wrong if parts of the datastream back to Earth was lost.

Now we are in the last throes of the Cassini’s life as it orbits Saturn absorbing and relaying data to Earth. In less than a month from now it will have dived into the ringed planet for its final destruction. As such and how it will appear in the news headlines, you may well want to know more about this spacecraft. That being the case, then you shouldn’t miss out on this book. You will be better informed with a stronger realisation of just how important this mission was. We now know more about Saturn and some of its moons than we did before and making us more knowledgeable about the universe.

GF Willmetts

April 2017

(pub: Haynes. 196 page illustrated indexed large hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78521-111-9)

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