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Space Fighter: Why we cared about Cassini.

15 September 201812:00AMscicomm

On this day, one year ago, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn's atmosphere. This was widely regarded as a good move, but made a lot of people very sad.

But why? It performed its function to specification, and once its operational lifetime was over, it was decommisioned. It's no different, really, from any other piece of scientific equipment. There's no logical reason for us to empathise with a spacecraft. And yet, from mission control to Youtube comments sections, that's exactly what we did.

This phenomenon is called anthropomorphism, and it's part of being human. As social animals, it's incredibly useful for us to be able to figure out what other humans are thinking. Our brains, over hundreds of thousands of years, have adapted to be really good at just that. Sometimes, they're a little too good. If something looks even a little bit human, it causes that ancient instinct to fire, even if it's not supposed to.

Curiosity takes a selfie

But Cassini was no Curiosity. It didn't have a stereo cameras that looked like eyes, or soil samplers that looked like hands. It was a car-sized oblong bristling with instruments and antennae. There was nothing recognisably human about it - except for the way it behaves.

When it comes to anthropomorphism, actions can be just as powerful as appearances. If something looks like it's behaving with purpose, we try to understand what that purpose might be. In a context that's not familiar, like, say, orbiting around a gas giant, the urge to fall back on that ancient, primitive part of our mind to help us understand is even stronger.

In short? We empathised with Cassini so much because above all else, it looked like it was trying.

Cassini fights to keep its antenna pointed

This moment, from NASA's Grand Finale announcement video, is the perfect example. Cassini has a goal, something that it wants to do, and it's struggling to keep doing it. Everything it's doing happens for a good scientific or engineering reason, but in this moment it's the human explanation that stands out to us.

Opinions are mixed on whether anthropomorphising science like this is a good idea. On one hand, many researchers consider it unscientific. It pushes us to rely on untestable gut instincts, rather than evidence or cause and effect. Perhaps rightly, they're concerned that treating things as human when they aren't is a bit of a misconception.

On the other hand, we have Cassini, where everyone from mission controllers to Youtube commenters got excited and connected on a very human level with something happening a billion kilometres away.

Nobody really believes Cassini is alive, but we act like it is, because it makes a better story. Everyone, not just NASA engineers, had a link with that little probe. And while we lost one connection that day, we gained one as well - with science, and perhaps with each other too.

Creative Commons License
Space Fighter by Rockwell McGellin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://rockym93.net/blog/2018/09/space-fighter.html.

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