The Cassini spacecraft has bid a photo farewell to Saturn's adorable, delicious-looking moon, Pan.
On March 7, the probe made observations of Pan that turned out to have eight times better resolution than any previous images ever taken of the small satellite. The Cassini images revealed that pan has a unique shape: a bulging midsection with a flat disk wrapped around it.
New images released by NASA shows Cassini's view of Pan as the spacecraft approached the moon, and then as the craft moved away. The image shows the moon's northern and southern hemispheres. In the first set of images, the view of Pan on the left was taken at a distance of about 15,300 miles (24,600 km); the image on the right was taken at a distance of about 23,200 miles (37,300 km). A second set of images offer stereo views of Pan that appear 3D with red-blue glasses. Those images were taken by Cassini from a distance of 16,000 miles or 25,000 kilometers (left view) and 21,000 miles or 34,000 kilometers (right view). [In Photos: Amazing Color Maps of Saturn's Moons]
Pan's shape has drawn comparisons to a piece of pasta or dough, stuffed with who-knows-what kind of delicious filling. Thin, straight ridges can be seen across the moon's central bulge, looking almost as though someone dragged a very large fork across the moon's surface.
"At the tail end of the process, that material was raining down on the moon solely in (or close to) its equatorial region. Thus, the infalling material formed a tall, narrow ridge of material," the statement said. With a average radius of 8.8 miles (14.1 kilometers), Pan orbits Saturn inside the planet's ring system, in a cleared-out region called the Encke Gap of Saturn's A-ring, according to NASA. Pan formed when Saturn's rings were younger and thicker than they are today, according to a statement from NASA. Sort of like a snowball gathering up more and more material as it rolls along, Pan accreted material onto what is now the moon's round midsection.
The disk or ridge around Pan's equator likely formed long after the central bulge, once the tiny moon had carved out a clearing in Saturn's rings, the statement said. At that point, the ring system would have thinned out, but some material would still be slowly pulled onto the moon by gravity.
"On a larger, more massive body, this ridge would not be so tall (relative to the body), because gravity would cause it to flatten out," NASA officials said in the statement. "But Pan's gravity is so feeble that the ring material simply settles onto Pan and builds up. Other dynamical forces keep the ridge from growing indefinitely."