Fried Egg? Flying Saucer? Nope. Just Cool New Closeups of Saturn’s Moon Pan

This new view of Saturn’s moon Pan is the closest yet, snapped by Cassini from a distance of 15,268 miles (24,572 km) on March 7, 2017. Pan measures 22 miles wide by 14 miles across and displays a number of small craters along with parallel ridges and grooves. Its broad, thinner equatorial ridge displays fine, parallel striations. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Besides Earth, Saturn may be the only other planet where you can order rings with a side of ravioli. Closeup photos taken by the Cassini probe of the the planet’s second-innermost moon, Pan, on March 7 reveal remarkable new details that have us grasping at food analogies in a feeble attempt to describe its unique appearance.

A side view of Pan better shows its thin and wavy ridge likely built up through the accumulation of particles grabbed from Saturn’s rings. The ridge is between 0.9 and 2.5 miles (1-4 km) thick. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


As Pan moves along the Encke Gap its gravity creates ripples in Saturn’s A-ring. Credit:
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The two-part structure of the moon is immediately obvious: a core body with a thin, wavy ridge encircling its equator. How does such a bizarre object form in the first place? There’s good reason to believe that Pan was once part of a larger satellite that broke up near Saturn long ago. Much of the material flattened out to form Saturn’s rings while large shards like Pan and another ravioli lookalike, Atlas, orbited within or near the rings, sweeping up ring particles about their middles. Tellingly, the ridges are about as thick as the vertical distances each satellite travels in its orbit about the planet.

Pan casts its shadow on Saturn’s A-ring from within the 200-mile-wide (325 km) Encke Gap, which is maintained by the presence of the moon. Pan shares the gap with several diffuse ringlets from which it may still be gathering additional material around its equatorial ridge. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Today, Pan orbits within and clears the narrow Encke Gap in Saturn’s outer A-ring of debris. It also helps create and shape the narrow ringlets that appear in the gap It’s lookalike cousin Atlas orbits just outside the A-ring.

Pan and Altas (25×22 miles) orbit within Saturn’s ring plane and may both be fragments from a larger moon breakup that created Saturn’s rings. Both have swept up material from the rings to form equatorial ridges. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Moons embedded in rings can have profound effects on that material from clearing gaps to creating new temporary ringlets and raising vertical waves of material that rise above and below the ring plane. All these effects are produced by gravity, which gives even small objects like Pan dominion over surprisingly vast regions.

Enjoy this animated gif created from photos of the close flyby of Pan. Credit:
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


The Return of the Rings!

Now that Cassini has gone off on a new trajectory taking it above and below the equatorial plane of Saturn, we’re back to getting some fantastic views of the rings — the likes of which haven’t been seen in over two and a half years!

The image above shows portions of the thin, ropy F ring and the outer A ring, which is split by the 202-mile (325-km) -wide Encke gap. The shepherd moon Pan can be seen cruising along in the gap along with several thin ringlets. Near the A ring’s outer edge is a narrower space called the Keeler gap — this is the home of the smaller shepherd moon Daphnis, which isn’t visible here (but is one of my personal favorites!)

The scalloped pattern on the inner edge of the Encke gap downstream from Pan and a spiral pattern moving inwards from that edge are created by the 12.5-mile-wide (20-km-wide) moon’s gravitational influence.

Other features that have returned for an encore performance are the so-called propellers, spiral sprays of icy ring material created by tiny micro-moons within the rings. Individually too small to discern (less than half a mile in diameter) these propeller moons kick up large clumps of reflective ring particles with their gravity as they travel through the rings, revealing their positions.

The three images above show a propeller within the A ring. Nicknamed “Sikorsky” after Russian-American aviator Igor Sikorsky, the entire structure is about 30 miles (50 km) across and is one of the more well-studied propellers.

Scientists are eager to understand the interactions of propellers in Saturn’s rings as they may hold a key to the evolution of similar systems, such as solar systems forming from disks of matter.

See a video of a propeller orbiting within the rings here, and here’s an image of one that’s large enough to cast a shadow!

“One of the main contributing factors to the enormous success we on the Cassini mission have enjoyed in the exploration of Saturn is the capability to view the planet and the bodies around it from a variety of directions,” Cassini Imaging Team Leader Carolyn Porco wrote earlier today. “Setting the spacecraft high into orbit above Saturn’s equator provides us direct views of the equatorial and middle latitudes on the planet and its moons, while guiding it to high inclination above the equator plane affords the opportunity to view the polar regions of these bodies and be treated to vertigo-inducing shots of the planet’s glorious rings.”

As always, keep up with the latest Cassini news on the mission site here, and read more about these images on the CICLOPS imaging team page here.

Image credits: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute.