20 years is how long NASA's Cassini spacecraft has spent in space. Traveling through the cosmic hinterlands of our solar system since it launch on 15th October 1997, it reached its destination, Saturn, in 2004. Heading into orbit around the sixth planet from the sun, it dropped the Huygens probe on Saturn's Titan moon, making history by landing the first human-made object on a world in the outer solar system.
It then spent the next seven years exploring Saturn, its moons, and rings, and sending back images and fascinating data about subsurface global oceans on Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on Titan. These days, though, it's running out of fuel. But rather than just go out with a whimper, or worse, crash into Enceladus or Titan, Saturn's moons, and destroy any life that might exist there (conditions are favorable), it's choosing the hero's way.
Instead it will crash into Saturn itself, in pretty much a blaze of glory, gathering data and sending it back to mission control on earth until the very last. A sacrifice to scientific knowledge. Its notable and epic journey, and its grand finale, is brought to life in the short film, Cassini's Grand Finale, produced by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in collaboration with filmmaker and digital artist Erik Wernquist.
Using stunning CGI, Wernquist styled the graphics on real images from NASA missions. The film evocatively recounts what NASA call one of their "most successful missions of exploration." In a making-of article about the short, NASA explains that the images are "based on the real sights of Saturn. Each scene in the film attempts to faithfully recreate actual vistas you could see if you paid an in-person visit to Saturn, its rings and moons."
After conveying what Cassini has achieved the short then depicts the spectacular way it will end its two decades of service. On April 26, 2017 it will, incredibly, dive in-between Saturn and its rings of dust, rock, and ice. Then, on a swansong of an orbit, it will plunge into Saturn itself. Come September 15, 2017, this valiant spacecraft will be no more.
"22 times, Cassini dives through previously unexplored gap between Saturn and its rings, collecting new data on the mass of the rings (used to help determine their age), measurements of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields (used to help understanding its internal structure) and sending home stunning views of Saturn's clouds and the rings—seen from a closer range than ever before," Wernquist says about the craft's final duties. "Even up until the very end, Cassini will bring home data, as it tastes the atmosphere of Saturn, just minutes before burning up and becoming part of the planet itself."
The whole story has got the grandeur, drama, and climactic, thrilling ending of a Hollywood movie, but it's all real.
"It is meant as an inspirational and informative piece about what happens in the last months of the mission," notes Wernquist about the short. "And as a celebration of all that this historic spacecraft has achieved," continuing, "Thank you Cassini, and farewell. The solar system will feel empty without you."
Watch it below: