Last week I watched on as Cassini, one of our few eyes in the Outer Solar System, plunged to a fiery demise over the skies of Saturn, concluding its 20 year mission. Like any funeral, it was a bittersweet moment: she had provided so much data and so many beautiful pictures of the enigmatic and inspirational world of Saturn and its moons, it was sad to see our little ambassador disappear.
Before Cassini’s arrival, Saturn was just another bright speck in the night sky, a ringed siren a billion miles from Earth that beckoned us to explore her creamy pale atmosphere, her dazzling corona of water ice and dust, her clutch of frigid moons with their prospect of potential life. Despite its oppressive darkness, space is littered with distant flickering spots just like Saturn, the heavens brimming with scattered grains of planets and stars and galaxies all waiting to be explored, the sky aglow with possibility and wonder.
Opacity starts with that dream of discovery, desirous of the night and peering out into the void; “Shimmer” moves on glowing strings and refractive airs, genteel piano strokes lingering as twilight makes way to night and the stars begin to pop out one by one. At first the constellations are dizzying, “Blinded” briefly unable to orient itself as it faces the impossible myriad above. Slowly we acclimatise to the view, “Recollect” densifying in thought as drone swells muster in peaceful remembrance, distant electronic turbulence zipping by like satellites overhead. The piano is almost tear-jerking toward the end, delicate strokes reaching out to the comfortingly familiar face of the expanse above.
“Glow” continues that crushingly intimate piano, lost in celestial dreams. One can almost touch the planets through the telescope’s eyepiece: the clay-reds and oranges of big Jupiter and its Galilean guardians; the fragmentary dust of Saturn’s ring plane and its cold shepherds. Oases all in the frozen darkness. They hang about us like orbs on a mobile, viewable only at the witching hour (and only at the whim of “Clouds” and all their fluffy, placid obfuscation, soft drones pulling the eye Earthward again). Constantly we crave to know more about these far flung places, to know what lies below Titan’s thick atmospheric fog, what it would be like to stand on frozen Enceladus and watch the geysers spew ammonia out with watchful mother Saturn hanging overhead. “Beneath” trickles out these ruminations in crooning violins and muffled piano, questioning, dreaming.
For a brief moment in “Weightless” we’re there with Cassini, drifting idly in deep space, tracts of near-silence punctuated by stringed drone vistas that just eat up the view. Thick synth energy writhes with an impassioned strength, radio comms dancing back and forth with excitable, futuristic chatter as we relay our magnificent experiences out at the furthest reaches of explored space.
Alas we have to come back to reality and slowly we descend. “Hidden” reminds us that these places are still largely inaccessible, that there is still much to be learned as its quiet drones temper our wild imagination. Those foreign views Cassini caught up close are still mysterious, still untouchable: forbidden. She’s gone now, and we’ll have to wait some time before we get to glimpse the Saturnian system up close again, even vicariously, but we can summon up all its contours and morphologies in our mind with closing “Eyes Shut”. Wobbling on thick, reverbed electronica and dense drones we speed around space with our mind’s eye, zooming through the consumptive darkness seeking out those rare places of material refuge to sate our boundless human curiosity.