Story: The Cassini spacecraft spent over a decade studying Saturn, sending back incredible images and historic data on the beautiful gas giant. In Death Dive to Saturn, we’re taken through Cassini’s days exploring the beloved rings of Saturn and also guided on a tour of how scientists use the collected data to unlock new knowledge. Time is also devoted to the exploration of Saturn’s moons, with some special attention given to Titan, of course. The title refers to Cassini’s final mission, where the spacecraft makes one final pass, then dives into the planet’s atmosphere. The hope is to collect unprecedented insight into Saturn’s atmosphere, but given all the unknowns involved, no one seems confident on how fruitful the final moments of Cassini might be.

Entertainment Value: I have to think that Saturn is one of the more historically beloved planets, with its incredible rings that have always dazzled stargazers of all eras. We know now that other planets and even moons have rings of their own, but Saturn remains the ruler of the rings and Cassini’s mission will only enhance the world’s fascination with the gas giant. In an over twenty year mission with thirteen of them studying Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft was able to provide images like we had never seen and a data set with massive insights. Once the spacecraft had exhausted nearly all resources and the mission was a wrap, the Cassini carried out one final journey, into the planet’s atmosphere. That is inspiration of sorts for this NOVA episode and we do learn a lot about that part of the mission, including the predictions on how long the spacecraft survives and what potential data might be returned. I always find end of missions sad, but this one especially, since the Cassini had such a fiery end.

The title here is Death Dive to Saturn, but the mission finale isn’t the lone or even focus here, as a slightly broader look at the Cassini mission is also offered. The primary focus seems to be those wonderful rings and I doubt anyone will complain about that, especially since the mission’s conclusion is given enough time and depth here. I learned so much about the rings, from their likely formation to the theories on how old the rings are to some just wild facts about Saturn’s adornments. The Cassini team shows how they use the spacecraft to collect the data, but goes beyond that to show its application and what the practical results yield. Cassini is truly historic, as there is so much knowledge that resulted from the mission and I couldn’t believe how deep the resultant data was. The moons of Saturn are covered, though this is a brisk section of the episode, with Titan taking the lion’s share of the screen time. I found Death Dive to Saturn to be a well crafted look at a remarkable space mission, easily recommended to those with an interest in the cosmos.

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