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The Cassini-Huygens exploration of Titan: Triumph of the nerds?

John McAnulty

24th January 2005

At first glance the journey of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to the planet Saturn and the subsequent landing on the moon Titan is a triumph of science and rationality. The main spacecraft was named after Jean-Dominique Cassini, who confirmed the existence of the rings around Saturn. The probe was named after Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch astronomer who discovered Titan. The names suggest an unbroken continuity from the astronomers and primitive telescopes of the 17th century to space vehicles that, despite travelling at speeds measured in kilometres per second, still took seven years to travel the immense 1.5 billion mile orbital loop that brought them to within 7 miles of their destination point in Saturn’s rings. The separation of the Huygens probe, its successful landing on Titan, and the torrent of information it provided before its batteries died are all a tribute to the power of science and technology.

However this is not a new dawn in space exploration. No further missions of this kind are planned. In the era of late capitalism a growing tide of barbarism is increasingly marginalizing and isolating science and rationalism.

One example was the media coverage of the event. There was breathless excitement and extended news, but almost all was of the ‘gosh, isn’t science interesting’ variety, giving potted histories of the individual scientists and recycling the few photographs immediately available. A week later the first detailed analysis of the information, describing the ecology of a previously unknown world, obtained only the briefest of mentions.

The programme of the current US emperor in relation to space exploration is a manned mission to Mars – a programme of limited scientific worth but with endless opportunities for what the Americans call ‘pork barrel’ – public subsidies to big US defence companies that supported the Bush election campaign. In the meantime the Hubble space telescope – one of the most sophisticated and successful scientific instruments ever built – is allowed to fall to Earth. This is hardly surprising in an administration that has adopted the programme of the fundamentalist Christian right and whose supporters are prepared to subvert the teaching of science in schools.

In science Marxists see a fusion of theory and practice that once belonged to all of humanity but was separated with the dawn of class societies. We deny however any idea that science is impartial or separate from class society. Scientists can produce truth, but they do so as servants of capitalism. For the record the main objectives of Cassini-Huygens show the tremendous value of theoretical science. The study of the Saturn system allows us to picture events in the early solar system and thus judge the danger of Earth facing a major catastrophe. The study of Titan allows us to compare the Earth to another planet with active weather and climate and will transform our understanding of our own climate and the dangers of climate change facing humanity.

A capitalist leadership indifferent to the suffering of the world’s population and unwilling to accept the evidence for pollution control is unlikely to care much about these outcomes.


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