Since it launched in 1997, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been giving us unprecedented views of Saturn and its (many) moons. But this week, the intrepid orbiter outdid itself by capturing some adorable images of Saturn’s tiny moon, Pan. In Greek mythology, Pan was the god of shepherds, which is appropriate considering the clingy world acts as a “shepherd moon” of Saturn, clearing out the 200 mile-wide Encke Gap within the gas giant’s A Ring.
But to be fair, Pan was a pantsless, flute-playing fawn man who was nowhere near as cute as this tiny space pierogi. I mean, there’s no way this scrumptious little morsel is a moon—it’s a dumpling, right? I could be persuaded into accepting it as a ravioli, but that’s about as extreme as I’m willing to get.
Just look at it.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these images were taken during one of Cassini’s recent ring grazing orbits, when the spacecraft’s camera was pointing toward Pan. They were taken on March 7th, using the camera’s CL1 and GRN filters, but have not been altered in any way.
So the obvious question here is what’s going on with Pan’s shape, assuming this is not some weird image artifact? According to Cassini imaging lead Carolyn Porco, the little moon has a bulging equatorial ridge that was likely caused by ring material accreted onto Pan after its formation. Another of Saturn’s moons, named Atlas, exhibits a similar equatorial bulge.
Bulge is ring material accreted onto Pan long after its formation. Ring is very thin so bulge sits on equl region. Pan has little gravity https://t.co/DlcSRD3qhO
— Carolyn Porco (@carolynporco) March 9, 2017
We’ll miss Cassini and all of its ravioli photos when it finally takes a nose dive into Saturn’s atmosphere this September. Until then, we can expect many more stunning photos of this weird world and its most scrumptious moons.