Saturn's walnut-shaped moon Pan inspires food comparisons

Cassini sends back closest image of saucer-shaped moon

Saturn's moon Pan, photographed by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in March.
Saturn's moon Pan, photographed by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in March. (NASA)

ORLANDO, Fla. – From a distance, Pan looks like a mini Saturn with a rings of its own, but on closer inspection the tiny moon is wrapped in surface bulge around the equator.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft currently on the last leg of its mission studying the Saturn system sent back a high-resolution image Thursday of 35-kilometer-wide Pan and its embedded ring.

NASA’s Voyager spacecraft first discovered Pan in the 1980s and Cassini has since photographed the little moon more than 1,300 times, but never before this close.

Cassini took the new images of Pan Wednesday from 15,268 miles away during a series of five outer-ring flybys, according to NASA.

“These five close passes have been really very revealing," Cassini co-investigator Peter Thomas told News 6.

Thomas said the images of Pan are nine-times better resolution than previous images and were planned months in advanced.

On social media, Pan is inspiring some mouth-watering comparisons.

“After 13 years, we’ve come to expect extreme reactions to our images,” Planetary scientist and Cassini imaging lead Carolyn Porco tweeted. “But hunger?”

Some said it looks like a walnut, ravioli, a tortellini or maybe it looks like a hamburger.

In 2007, Cassini’s imaging team wrote about what causes the shape of Saturn’s moons Pan and Atlas, which also has a saucer-like equatorial ridge.

The odd shape around the moon is created when a mass of sediment falls onto the moon’s equator, according to the paper published in Science Magazine. At some point after the moons formed, and maybe even now the ring material fell on its equator causing the mass.


“Pan and Atlas ridges are kilometers-thick ‘ring-particle piles’ formed after the satellites themselves and after the flattening of the rings but before the complete depletion of ring material from their surroundings,” according to the study.

The study’s authors concluded that the embedded rings could be of interest to how planets form.

The new images are the last we will see from Cassini of Pan, Thomas said.

In April, Cassini will flyby Atlas, which will give the science team a look at another of Saturn's moons with an equatorial ridge.

Using the information about Atlas and Pan, Thomas said they will next try to determine their age.

Cassini is on the final phase of its outer ring-grazing orbits. In September, the spacecraft will go dark after it takes a Grande Finale dive into Saturn's surface.

“In the end, these (images) will inform us how the satellites relate to the rings,” Thomas said.

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