Scientists Don't Want You to Call Cassini's End a 'Suicide'

Anthropomorphizing robots is one thing, but some say news reports about the spacecraft risk being insensitive.

An illustration of Cassini above Saturn's northern hemisphere during its final orbits
An illustration of Cassini above Saturn's northern hemisphere during its final orbits (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The end of the Cassini mission was a bittersweet event. On the one hand, the orbiter coasted through unexplored territory on Friday morning, collecting and transmitting data about Saturn that could help scientists solve some of the planet’s biggest mysteries. On the other hand, it smashed into Saturn’s atmosphere and completely disintegrated in a matter of minutes.

So it follows that many headlines and reports about Cassini’s demise (including ours) skewed dark before the big day. Here’s a sampling: “Saturn probe turns toward its death plunge.” “Cassini's plunge of fiery doom.” “Cassini flies toward a fiery death on Saturn.”

Some headlines have gone even further, describing the end of the mission as a suicidal act. Cassini is on a “suicide mission.” The spacecraft will soon take “the final, suicidal step.” “The Cassini spacecraft will soon commit suicide on Saturn.”

This framing, of the Cassini orbiter taking its own life, didn’t sit well with some members of the scientific community. They acknowledged people’s tendency to anthropomorphize robots and react to them in emotional ways, which includes mourning. But the analogy, they said, was inappropriate and insensitive.

“I really, really wish people would stop referring to the Cassini end of mission in terms related to suicide,” said Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Maryland, in a pair of tweets this week. “I don’t really care how somber you are feeling about the mission. It’s a machine, and you’re making light of something very serious.”

Preston Dyches, a spokesperson for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, echoed the sentiment. “It’s crushing me, all the stories calling Cassini’s end of mission dying, suicide, death, brutal, killing ... No matter how brave and noble and responsible this ending is, people still want to make it a tragedy,” he wrote in several tweets. “Sure, anthropomorphize Cassini, but if it *were* a person, you’d not speak about its impending demise with such zeal.”

As uncomfortable as it may make some people, the decision to talk about Cassini’s end in the context of death and suicide make sense when you consider that people have a tendency to anthropomorphize a variety of machines, from Roombas to WALL-E. Studies have shown that people can feel empathy, attachment, and other emotions toward robots that exhibit signs of life.

Some space robots, like Cassini and the Mars rover Curiosity, fall into that category; from afar, the machines look like they’re doing all the work by themselves, helping their human colleagues learn more about their shared home, the solar system. When Curiosity serenaded itself with a robotic version of “Happy Birthday” a few years ago—a very human act—some people were in tears, overwhelmed by sympathy for a machine, even if they recognized it wasn’t warranted. It follows that, when Cassini ceases to exist—another very human act—people will mourn it as a loss.

There has been a wide range of reactions to the end of the Cassini mission, both inside NASA and elsewhere. The space agency has avoided any mention of death in its press releases, instead referring to the end of the mission as a “grand finale.”

“We’ve tried very hard to stay away from any themes involving death, even as a metaphor,” said Earl Maize, the Cassini program manager, in an email. “That goes triple for suicide.”

Still, several Cassini scientists I’ve recently spoken with have invoked death in their thoughts on the mission’s end. One likened the end of the mission to a wake or memorial service. Another said that the end of Cassini’s signal transmission would be like “watching somebody’s EKG and waiting for their last heartbeat to come.” A third sent me a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in the original German, which, depending on your translation, declares: “I am the Spirit that Denies! / And justly so: for all things, from the Void / Called forth, deserve to be destroyed.”

The descriptions haven’t all been gloomy. Some NASA language has leaned toward gentleness, sometimes romance. The space agency described Cassini’s final close encounter with Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as a “goodbye kiss.” Last winter, when preparations for Cassini’s end started ramping up, a JPL spokesperson told me, “I’m partial to the idea that it’s a love story—Cassini circling Saturn as an admirer, getting to know the ringed planet and its retinue for 13 years, before throwing itself into Saturn’s atmosphere to be crushed in its embrace.” Some news outlets decided to frame Cassini’s “death” as a noble act, highlighting the reason NASA crashed Cassini into Saturn as the spacecraft ran out of fuel: to protect Titan and Enceladus, Saturnian moons that may host microbial life, from terrestrial debris. “Cassini is ready to sacrifice itself for the good of the solar system.” “Cassini spacecraft to make ultimate sacrifice.”

Erika Nesvold, a postdoctoral astronomy fellow in astronomy at the Carnegie Institution’s department of terrestrial magnetism, countered some of the negative language with a heartwarming cartoon:

Doug Gillan, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University who studies human interaction with technology, called a suicide-related description a “bad analogy.”

“It was the people who built it who decided that this was going to happen. It wasn’t Cassini, ” said Gillan, whom I interviewed about the anthropomorphization of Cassini earlier this year. “Cassini doesn’t have any sentience.”

If one really wanted to push the metaphor, Gillan pointed out, it would be actually more accurate to say NASA killed Cassini.