Saturn's Moon: New Up-Close Photos Show Pan's Weird Shape

Fagjun | Published 2017-03-09 22:49

Saturn's Moon Pan looks like a walnut and an empanada had a baby and shot it into space.

NASA very recently released new and more detailed photos of Pan. These photos are the clearest and most detailed images of Pan to date. The spacecraft Cassini, a Saturn orbiter, was able to take there new photos while on a flyby around Saturn.

Prior to these new images, astronomers have only been able to take photos of Pan from afar. Because of those older photos, astronomers have already figured that Pan has a strange shape. They just had no idea how strange, exactly.

An image of Pan taken by spacecraft Cassini in 2005. The walnut-like shape was already discernible.
[Photo by NASA/JPL]

Getting to Know Saturn's Moon

Saturn has a lot of known moons, not counting the unconfirmed moons and the hypothetical moons. Of the 62 known moons, only 53 have been named. The moons also have a wide range of sizes, with some measuring less than one kilometer in diameter. Others, like the gigantic moon Titan, is actually larger than planet Mercury.

Pan is Saturn's second-innermost moon. Its orbit lies in the Encke Gap, which is a span of empty space within Saturn's A Ring. Pan actually caused the Encke Gap because of its orbit. However, that's not all that Pan did for the Encke Gap. It also functions as a “shepherd moon”, whose job is to keep the gap free of ring particles.

These ring particles may have been the reason for Pan's distinct equatorial ridge. As a shepherd moon, Pan sweeps ring particles that find their way into the gap. Some of the particles may have stuck to Pan, forming the ridge that gives the moon its weird shape.

The new photos are barely a day old, so scientists do not have much information yet on the equatorial ridge.

Goodbye, Cassini

Thanks to the Saturn orbiter Cassini, we can now take a better look at the strangeness of Saturn's moon. Cassini and the lander Huygens began to orbit Saturn on July 1, 2004. Cassini's job was to do numerous flybys around Saturn, its rings, and its moons. Since 2004, Cassini has managed to make amazing discoveries and take the first close-up photos of Saturn's many satellites. It was Cassini that discovered seven new Saturnine moons and took the first clear photos of the moon Phoebe. The probe recorded so much new information on the giant planet and almost everything orbiting it.

Artist's rendering of Cassini entering orbit around Saturn
[Photo by NASA/JPL]

However, it's time to say goodbye to the intrepid probe. Cassini took these new and amazing photos of Pan on one of its last flybys. Cassini's last mission is to dive through Saturn's outer rings twenty times, one dive a week. It is set to get the closest ever look at Saturn's outer rings.

Cassini's fuel is dwindling, so on September of this year, it will fall into Saturn's atmosphere to be destroyed. This is to prevent the potential contamination of Saturn's moons, some of which may be habitable. Cassini, the spacecraft that sent Earth these amazing photos of Saturn's moon Pan and more, is going out in a blaze of glory.

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