This snapshot, taken near Saturn on March 7 by the Cassini spacecraft, is wowing scientists and the public alike.
Scientists have just used NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to take pictures of what everyone is calling “space ravioli”: Saturn’s moon Pan. The images were taken on March 7 during a flyby when it came with 15,268 miles of the moon, which is a mere 22 miles wide and is one of Saturn’s smallest moons.
It’s the closest images ever taken of Pan, and they will help scientists understand the shape and geology of this cosmic body, NASA said in a statement. Saturn has more than 60 moons, and many of them are quite small like Pan with an odd shape. For example, Iapetus has a weird oblong shape due to an equatorial ridge, drawing comparisons to a walnut. And a huge crater in the moon Mimas makes it look like the death star.
Saturn’s moons fascinate scientists, and for many diverse reasons. Scientists want to take a closer look at the giant moon Titan, which is the only other cosmic body in the solar system other than Earth to have stable bodies of liquid on its surface, although the liquid is from hydrocarbons not water. And then there’s Enceladus, which may hold an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface that scientists think may harbor life.
NASA says on its website: “Pan, the innermost of Saturn’s known moons, has a mean radius of 8.8 miles (14.1 km) and orbits 83,000 miles (134,000 km) away from Saturn, within the Encke Gap of Saturn’s A-ring. As it orbits Saturn every 13.8 hours, it acts as a shepherd moon and is responsible for keeping the Encke Gap open. The gap is a 200 mile (325 km) opening in Saturn’s A ring.
“Pan creates stripes, called “wakes,” in the ring material on either side of it. Since ring particles closer to Saturn than Pan move faster in their orbits, these particles pass the moon and receive a gravitational “kick” from Pan as they do. This kick causes waves to develop in the gap and also throughout the ring, extending hundreds of miles into the rings. These waves intersect downstream to create the wakes, places where ring material has bunched up in an orderly manner thanks to Pan’s gravitational kick.”