RIP Cassini: A Space Art Obituary

A look back at 20 years of space art to celebrate 20 years of Cassini.

“Cassini Spacecraft Makes its Final Approach to Saturn” (artist’s rendering courtesy NASA)

After almost 20 years of collecting data on the sixth planet, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, leaving behind a wealth of photos and data, the most exciting of which point to the possibility of life on Enceladus, one of its many moons. As a tribute to Cassini and the valuable information it found on its mission, we decided to compile a timeline of its most significant events and discoveries, juxtaposed with the outer-space-related artworks created here on Earth in that same period of time.


Cassini (with the Huygens probe attached) is launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket early on the morning of October 15.

Meanwhile on Earth, Colette Gaiter creates “SPACE|R A C E,” a multimedia project that looks into the relationships between the space program and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.


Cassini flies by Venus (twice) and the Earth and our moon, using the gravity of each to increase its speed in preparation for its launch to the other side of the Solar System.

Meanwhile on Earth, Ronald Jones’s “The Bed Neil Armstrong Slept in His First Night Back from the Moon” (1969 – 98) appears in his solo show at Metro Pictures.


Cassini flies through the asteroid belt and makes it to Jupiter in late December, shooting the most detailed global color portrait of the planet ever taken, where the smallest visible features are 37 miles across.

Meanwhile on Earth, Jane and Louise Wilson’s exhibition at 303 Gallery features “Star City,” a 4-channel video filmed inside the secretive Russian space-training center, as well as still photographs from the British twin sisters’ visit.


Using data collected by Cassini, Italian scientists are able to confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity with what NASA calls “precision that is 50 times greater than previous measurements.”

Meanwhile on Earth, Arts Catalyst releases Gravitation Off!, a short film documenting the projects of artists who participated in its “flying laboratory” program. Between 2000 and 2003, the project funded 20 artists to create work in zero-gravity environments.


Cassini finally reaches Saturn. But first, it makes a tour of its moons. Cassini discovers two new moons (Methone and Pallene), finds CO2 and water ice on Phoebe, and takes the highest-resolution photo of Titan ever. In late December, Cassini releases the Huygens probe to explore Titan.

Meanwhile on Earth, Laurie Anderson becomes NASA’s first (and last) artist in residence. Her residency culminates in a performance piece called “The End of the Moon” (2004).


Huygens lands on Titan, taking its first pictures from the moon’s surface. Cassini discovers that Saturn’s moon Enceladus has both an atmosphere and liquid water.

Meanwhile on Earth, Lia Halloran’s solo show at LA’s Sandroni.Rey gallery, And the Darkness Implies the Vastness, features paintings of female astronauts interacting with the abstract, invisible forces of the universe.


Cassini discovers several dozen lakes on Titan. It also witnesses a storm on Saturn, similar to a hurricane on Earth and never before seen on another planet.

Meanwhile on Earth, Germany’s Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM) launches “Space Place: Art in the Age of Orbitization,” a project that aspires to create a virtual museum on an orbiting satellite exclusively for space art.


Cassini flies by the moon Iapetus, while scientists discover that the water geysers on Enceladus spray from warmer regions, furthering the possibility of microbial life on Saturn’s moon.

Meanwhile on Earth, Tom Sachs shows his first “Space Program” project, featuring “artifacts” from a fictional voyage to the moon and back, at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. “Space Program: Mars” (2012, Park Avenue Armory) and “Space Program: Europa” (2016, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco) will later follow the same theme.


Cassini flies by Enceladus a few more times, discovering Earth-like tectonics, water vapor, CO2, and even organic materials at a density 20 times larger than scientists had predicted. Cassini ends its first mission and starts its second, which is further extended in 2010.

Meanwhile on Earth, Aleksandra Mir creates her “Astronauts” series of mash-up collages of the otherworldly: astronauts and saints.


Cassini tracks the aftermath of the massive storm that occurs every 30 Earth years on Saturn — or once every Saturn year — the first such storm studied by a spacecraft in orbit around the planet and observed at thermal infrared wavelengths.

Meanwhile on Earth, Creative Time commissions Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures” project. Paglen creates a special disc with 100 photographs with the purpose of launching it into space to orbit the Earth for billions of years. The disc launches aboard the communications satellite Echostar XVI in November.


Cassini flies by Titan for the hundredth time. Evidence builds of the existence of a saltwater ocean beneath Enceladus’s icy crust.

Meanwhile on Earth, Jason Rogenes creates an immersive environment of Styrofoam “asteroids” and “otherworldly soundscapes” for V3H1CL3, his solo exhibition at the Denver Art Museum.


Cassini takes the closest ever photos of the moon, Atlas. Scientists analyzing Cassini’s data from Enceladus announce that hydrogen gas is pouring into the moon’s now-confirmed ocean. Cassini ends its mission with 22 loops between Saturn and its innermost ring, observing the planet’s solstice (which occurs once every 15 Earth years), before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, self-destructing in order to prevent any possible Earth contamination to the potential life on Enceladus and/or Titan.

Meanwhile on Earth, Aleksandra Mir’s “Space Tapestry” project remains on view at Modern Art Oxford and Tate Liverpool. The project features wall-size black-and-white drawings inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry of the Norman conquest and depictions of Halley’s Comet in 1066.

Aleksandra Mir, “Pluto (And From Here You Look So Small)” (detail) (2017), (courtesy Tate Liverpool)
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