NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Saturn serves up the closest thing to space pasta, the latest images from NASA’s Cassini probe, released March 9, show.
On March 7, the spacecraft snapped a series of portraits (one shown above) of Pan, Saturn’s small moon that orbits within a 325-kilometer-wide gap in one of the planet’s rings. Taken at a distance of 24,572 kilometers from the moon, these are the closest images of Pan to date.
The close-ups could help refine astronomers’ understanding of the moon’s geology. Pan has a distinctive ridge along its equator, which had prompted astronomers to liken the moon to a flying saucer. But in the new images, Pan’s ridge isn’t uniform. Its unevenness creates an overall shape that more closely resembles a ravioli or a wrinkly walnut.
Still, the ridge’s distinctness is “what is so spectacular and eye-opening in these images,” says imaging team leader Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. The shape supports the idea that the ridge is made of material from Saturn’s rings that continued to rain down on Pan’s equator after the moon formed.
P. Dyches. Cassini Reveals Strange Shape of Saturn's Moon Pan. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Published online March 9, 2017.
S. Charnoz et al. The Equatorial Ridges of Pan and Atlas: Terminal Accretionary Ornaments? Science. Vol. 318, December 7, 2007, p. 1622. doi: 10.1126/science.1148631.
Science News Staff. What’s ahead for science in 2017? Science News. Vol. 190, December 24, 2016, p. 36.