As every space geek knows, September 15, 2017, will be a day laden in equal measure with science and sentiment.
On that day, after a 20-year pioneering adventure, the spacecraft Cassini will make a fiery plunge into the maelstrom of the gas giant Saturn, all the time determinedly beaming back data to NASA until the very moment the heat and the corrosion and the pressure reduce it to its component molecules.
Having already made history several times through its investigation of Saturn’s rings, the icy plumes spouting from the moon Enceladus, and, in conjunction with its long-time partner, the lander Huygens, revealing the methane oceans of Titan, Cassini’s final discoveries may well perhaps be its greatest.
Before the craft’s final bow, however, those eager to catch up on the story so far might like to check out a compact documentary, Cassini: The Grand Finale, now available on CuriosityStream.
In a brisk 12 minutes the doco, written and produced by Joi Shilling, mixes lush computer graphics and raw footage transmitted by the craft (of lower resolution but somehow more compelling than the studio stuff) to provide a diverting overview of Cassini’s life and career.
Narration is interspersed with interviews from a couple of leading hands at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
These are informative, of course, but also perform another, more important function. They provide a glimpse of the sheer excitement that Cassini has provided to its many handlers these past two decades.
There is also a strong sense of the bittersweet anticipation of the craft’s last act. It will be going out on a high note, for sure, but also a finite one. Cassini’s grand finale, observes one NASA boffin, will embody “the hopes and dreams of all the people who put her together”.
After Cassini, what comes next? Check out Watch This Space, a rundown of all the exciting new missions from NASA and other agencies, in the next print edition of Cosmos in store in October.