Great god, Pan!

NASA’s Cassini probe, enjoying its last few orbits of Saturn, has been deployed to intercept many of the ringed planet’s orbital features at close range.  On March 7, it came close to the “shepherd” moon, Pan, and revealed its unusual shape.

Some saucers do fly in outer space. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Pan has a large bulge (technically, an equatorial accretion disk) from the ring particles that it “sweeps up” in its orbit, removing enough material to make a distinctive opening in the bright A ring, called Enke’s Gap (or, earlier, Division).  Named in honor of astronomer Johann Enke, who did not actually observe it, it was theorized by the 1980s to be home to a moonlet that was gravitationally knocking out ring particles, a theory that was confirmed in 1990 through study of Voyager 2’s 1981 photos of the ring.

Though tiny in the photo, the Enke Gap is 330 km. (200 mi.) across. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

But none of the original discovery team, looking at Voyager’s “dot”, would have guessed that the moonlet was a space-based ravioli.

Take a lot of sauce to coat this “saucer”.


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