"NOVA: Death Dive to Saturn" Tracks Cassini's Final Mission and 20-Year Space Odyssey which Could Unlock New Clues to Formation of our Solar System

NOVA: Death Dive to Saturn
Courtesy of NASA

"NOVA: Death Dive to Saturn"
Premieres Wednesday, September 13 at 9 PM ET/PT on PBS
(Check local listings)

          After 20 years in space, the Cassini-Huygens mission—one of the most successful missions in the history of space exploration—will come to an end. Launching in 1997 and arriving at Saturn in 2004, Cassini has sent home miraculous images and scientific data, revealing countless wonders about Saturn, its rings, and dozens of moons—including some that could harbor life. In its fall season premiere, “Death Dive to Saturn,” NOVA, takes viewers on a suspenseful ride inside the mission’s last days, as Cassini attempts one last set of daring maneuvers—a series of dives between Saturn and its innermost ring, before making its final, fateful plunge into the planet’s atmosphere.

          In “Death Dive to Saturn,” NOVA cameras gain unique access to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the European Space Agency in Holland, the Paris Observatory, and more, to unveil the story behind this extraordinary mission. In April 2017, Cassini began a series of 22 dives between the outer edge of Saturn’s atmosphere and the inner edge of its icy rings, closer than any spacecraft has ever ventured. Just a speck of dust could cripple the spacecraft, traveling 76,000 miles per hour in this unknown region, and slamming into the rocks in the rings is a real possibility. Each weekly plunge is more dangerous than the one before, and takes researchers deeper towards the atmosphere. From the first dive through subsequent, increasingly risky dives, NOVA follows Mission Control and NASA engineers as they endure tense and triumphant moments in the hope of discoveries that could solve major mysteries about the planet’s formation, until the probe makes its Grand Finale—plunging into the atmosphere and burning into disintegration.

Death Dive to Saturn

Courtesy of Bob Paz for NASA

          To complete the story, NOVA producers will be on site at NASA’s JPL in CA the entire final week of the mission, including Friday, September 15, 2017, where they will capture Cassini’s final dive, reactions from the mission team, and more. NOVA will share this footage online via Facebook, Twitter, and the series’ other social media channels. Additionally, producers will weave these new moments into the previously broadcast episode, creating an updated version of Death Dive to Saturn.

          Saturn, its rings, and moons have intrigued stargazers for centuries—including the 17th century astronomers for whom the spacecraft and probe are named. NOVA travels to Holland to examine an original telescope built by Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens, who discovered Saturn’s rings and its largest moon, Titan, and heads to the Paris Observatory, the site where French astronomer Jean Dominique Cassini discovered six more moons and the division in Saturn’s rings.

Death Dive to SaturnCourtesy of NASA
          Featured experts include NASA Planetary Director Jim Green, Cassini Mission Project Manager Linda Spilker, Cassini Program Manager Earl Maize, Cassini Imaging Team Leader Carolyn Porco, who share key insights on the importance of the mission, the influence of the discoveries and the contributions to astronomy and science. Team members Michelle Dougherty (Imperial College London), Luciano Iess (Sapienza University Rome) and Richard French (Wellesley College) reveal some of Cassini’s latest discoveries—made during its Grand Finale.

Remarkable discoveries during Cassini’s 20-year mission include:
• Cameras captured the first video of lightning on another planet—1,000 times stronger than what we have on Earth—in a massive storm encircling Saturn, which can help scientists studying extreme weather and our atmosphere.
• The Huygens probe revealed that Saturn’s moon, Titan, has many Earth-like features, while more than 100 flybys made by Cassini painted a picture of a prebiotic version of Earth, frozen in time, with lakes, mountains and organics. NOVA meets with planetary scientist Alex Hayes, who demonstrates what a lake on Titan might look like compared to one on Earth.
• On Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, the greatest and most unexpected discovery of all was revealed by Cassini flybys: hundreds of plumes spewing icy saltwater and organics into space point to an underground ocean, which may contain hydrothermal vents resembling ones found in Earth’s oceans. Could Enceladus also contain life?
• Saturn has over fifty moons, in all shapes and sizes—from Prometheus, which looks like a potato, and Janus, which resembles a meatball, and Pan, shaped like a ravioli, to Mimas, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Death Star in Star Wars. But Cassini’s cameras over the years have revealed there may be hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of tiny moons embedded in the rings, called moonlets.
• Cassini Program team member Matt Tiscareno shares a revelation about these moonlets which leaves scientists wondering if the planets in our solar system were formed in a similar fashion.