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Cassini Sends Clearest Images of Saturn's Ravioli-Shaped Moon Pan

Mar 10, 2017 04:13 AM EST
Cassini spacecraft in Earth swing
NASA chose to end the Cassini mission with a bold and daring Grand Finale that's worthy of its 20-year service.
(Photo : NASA via Getty Images)

NASA's Cassini spacecraft sent back a stunningly detailed series of images of Saturn's uniquely shaped moon, Pan, that resembles a ravioli.

"After 13 yrs, we've come to expect extreme reactions to our images. But hunger? Ravioli, tortellini, empanada, pierogi, hamburger, brie?" tweeted Carolyn Ponco, Cassini's imaging chief.

Pan is thought to be about 21 miles wide and is located in a 200-mile gap in Saturn's A ring. The gap, also known as Encke Gap, was made by Pan. As the moonlet orbits Saturn, some of the particles within the ring are vacuumed by its gravity, resulting in the moon's distinct bulge in its equator.

The raw, unprocessed image of Pan was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on March 7, 2017 during a flyby that had a close-approach distance of 15, 268 miles.

Astronomers first predicted the existence of Pan in mid-1980s when NASA's Voyager spacecraft detected strange waves in the inner and outer edges of the Encke Gap. However, it was not until 1990 that the small moon was officially discovered.

Pan was first spotted by Mark Showalter and his colleagues when they had a closer look at the images sent back by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Now, over two decades and lots of technological advancement later, NASA's Cassini provide a much more detailed and clearer look of the small moon.

"This is such a far cry from the nondescript 'dots' that I was tracking way back in 1990 in the Voyager images!" said Showalter, who now works at SETI Institute in California, in a report from National Geographic. "It's very gratifying to finally see Pan's closeup."

Showalter noted that the bizarre appearance of Pan was probably caused by the fine dust from the rings being swept up by the moon. Due to the tiny size of the rings compared to the size of the moon, the dust accumulates in its equator, giving it its bulgy, ravioli-like shape.

Read Also: NASA Found 'Hardy' Objects in Cassini's New Closeup Images of Saturn's F Ring 

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