For over 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft has orbited Saturn, beaming back dazzling images from the ringed planet and its diverse moons. On September 15, the mission will go out in style by dive-bombing the planet. In “Death Dive to Saturn,” the TV series NOVA looks back at Cassini’s successes and takes us behind the scenes for the spacecraft’s final months.
Featuring interviews with scientists, footage from mission control and a cornucopia of space pictures, the NOVA special tells Cassini’s story, from its launch in 1997 to its impending demise. The documentary reviews what scientists have learned and what mysteries they hope to crack as the mission ends.
Cassini commenced its end game in late April, a series of orbits nicknamed the Grand Finale. Repeatedly passing between the planet and its rings, each orbit nudges the spacecraft closer to Saturn’s atmosphere. After its final orbit, Cassini will plummet through the clouds, taking measurements until it succumbs to the crushing pressure.
“The mysteries we want to solve with the Grand Finale mostly have to do with revealing Saturn from the inside out,” Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker tells viewers. Researchers will try to gain insight into what lurks beneath the opaque cloud deck and to learn whether Saturn has a solid core. By providing a fresh look at the rings, the close orbits could also lead to a better understanding of how and when the rings formed.
Despite its title, the documentary focuses on more than Cassini’s dramatic finale. Highlights from the mission take center stage. And the episode puts the mission into historical context, hearkening back to observations made by 17th century scientist Giovanni Cassini, who lends his name to the probe, and his contemporary Christiaan Huygens. Both men discovered the first batch of moons around Saturn and made the first detailed surveys of the planet’s rings.
The interviews are engaging, and the researchers’ excitement is infectious. Arresting visuals — some from the spacecraft, some concocted in computer programs on Earth — bring the story to life. One fun segment pieces together what we’ve learned about the moon Titan to create a vivid illustration of what it might be like to stand on the shores of the moon’s hydrocarbon lakes. After the actual dive, footage will be added to the streaming and DVD versions of the show, documenting Cassini’s final moments.