Taking one for the team to the max, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft deliberately crash landed on the surface of Saturn on 15 September 2017, after nearly twenty years in space. For the past seven, it had been preoccupied with observing and stealthily photographing the ringed gas giant planet.
This pre-destined suicide mission served to give us all more scope concerning much outer spaces, as Cassini carried the European Huygens probe and fed us unprecedented amount of photographic information about Saturn and its rings, seasons, magnetosphere and moons. By offing itself somewhat discreetly Cassini also ensured that the said moons, some of which boast intriguing prebiotic environs, will be left unmolested for future generations of human and robotic explorers.
Head on over to NASA for all the nitty-gritty goods, they’ve loads of galleries of artists’ renderings, raw images, timelines, audio files and mission graphics to fill your head with every interstellar detail there is. But if you’re going to check out anything at all, I suggest the final poignant images Cassini snapped itself on the last kamikaze loop of its twenty-two orbit Grande Finale.
That spacecraft was a regular Ansel Adams; Cassini’s handful of final, largely monochromatic stills suck viewers into startling new dimensions wrought with hypnotic beauty. The final frontier feels funnily compressed, stylised, almost minimalist when broken up into imposing geometric shapes and vacuous negative space. Though difficult to comprehend in rational terms since we’re but mere dust in the universe, Cassini’s series of seven conclusive photographs could unquestionably pass for fine art.
Put into context, these works tell a backstory of curiosity and brilliance, the peak of earthling ability and the perishing of long-pursued dreams. There’s notes of gruesome sacrifice, à la Hot Fuzz, for the greater good. Frankly, there’s also elements of sheer terror woven into the mix. Can those figments from well-beyond really be real?
Just the idea of an enormous floating ball whooshing through the Milky Way can be particularly unsettling when you recall we’re currently hurtling around the sun at 30 km per second on a smaller, more fragile floating ball. Actually seeing Saturn’s curving sides really brings it all existentially home.
It’s Science (and art). Enlightening. Aesthetically pleasing. Keeping us in our humble cosmic place.
source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Cassini: The Grand Finale, online