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New Photos Show The ‘Flying Saucer’ Moon Of Saturn In All Its Glory

New Photos Show The 'Flying Saucer' Moon Of Saturn In All Its Glory

Did you know that Saturn has a moon shaped eerily like a flying saucer?

Adorned with a thin band of icy ring particles, the small moon Pan inspires comparisons to alien spacecraft, walnuts, and even ravioli.

Check it out in the image above, acquired by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on April 12, 2017 during a flyby that came as close as 7,000 miles from the moon.

This is the closest image ever taken of the moon, named Atlas, according to NASA. The object is just 19 miles across; it orbits Saturn just outside the giant planet’s A ring — the outermost of Saturn’s main rings.

New Photos Show The 'Flying Saucer' Moon Of Saturn In All Its GloryCassini acquired this image of Atlas on Dec. 6, 2015. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

In the image above, taken by Cassini in 2015, you can see Atlas and Saturn’s A ring, which is at the bottom of the image.

The saucer is actually a little moon called Pan, and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured its distinctive shape. When she first saw the new pictures of Pan, Cassini scientist Carolyn Porco thought they might be an artist’s representation.

“They are real! Science is better than fiction,” she later commented.

New Photos Show The 'Flying Saucer' Moon Of Saturn In All Its GlorySource: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Named for the flute-playing Greek god of wild places, 21-mile-wide Pan is what’s called a shepherd moon. It lives within a gap in Saturn’s A ring, which is the farthest loop of icy particles from the planet. As it zips around Saturn, Pan continually clears debris from the gap by vacuuming up some ring particles and punting others n fact, it’s this absence of ring junk that led scientists to predict Pan’s existence as early as the mid-1980s. But the small moon wasn’t officially discovered until 1990, when Mark Showalter and his colleagues took a good look at images returned by the Voyager 2 spacecraft and found the moon that is responsible for the gap’s existence.

New Photos Show The 'Flying Saucer' Moon Of Saturn In All Its GlorySource: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Now, with the Cassini spacecraft zooming through the Saturnian system, scientists have gotten the chance to see Pan up close. Early images revealed its walnut shape, which Porco and her colleagues attributed to debris from the rings.

In fact, it’s this absence of ring junk that led scientists to predict Pan’s existence as early as the mid-1980s. But the small moon wasn’t officially discovered until 1990, when Mark Showalter and his colleagues took a good look at images returned by the Voyager 2 spacecraft and found the moon that is responsible for the gap’s existence.

Now, with the Cassini spacecraft zooming through the Saturnian system, scientists have gotten the chance to see Pan up close. Early images revealed its walnut shape, which Porco and her colleagues attributed to debris from the rings.

All Images©NASA

New Photos Show The ‘Flying Saucer’ Moon Of Saturn In All Its Glory
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