The National Aeronautics and Space Administration released raw, unprocessed photographs of Pan, one of Saturn's 62 moons. The closest ever images of the tiny satellite were taken on March 7 by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during a close flyby at an approximate distance of 24,572 kilometers (15,268 miles).
Twitter: Saturn Moon Looks Like A Ravioli
The impressive images were shared on the official Cassini mission Twitter account. NASA likened the moon to ravioli, a type of dumpling made of two layers of thin pasta dough.
— CassiniSaturn (@CassiniSaturn) March 9, 2017
Space ravioli? No, it's Saturn's moon Pan. @CassiniSaturn images are closest ever taken of this odd shaped moon: https://t.co/iXw8VX0682 pic.twitter.com/9B15ZSdyZD — NASA (@NASA) March 9, 2017
Interestingly, Carolyn Porco, Cassini's imaging chief, chimed in, tweeting that this is not the first time Saturn's innermost moon has been compared to food.
After 13 yrs, we've come to expect extreme reactions to our images. But hunger? Ravioli, tortellini, empanada, pierogi, hamburger, brie?
— Carolyn Porco (@carolynporco) March 9, 2017
Why The Odd Shape
Pan orbits Saturn every 13.8 hours, which is why it's considered as the planet's shepherd moon in charge of keeping the 325-kilometer (202-mile) Encke Gap of Saturn's A-ring open.
It is also known for its signature equatorial ridge, which gives it its flying saucer shape and which can also be seen in Saturn's other moon, Atlas.
"The shape, as others have also pointed out, is probably because it is always sweeping up fine dust from the rings. The rings are very thin compared to the size of Pan, so the dust accumulates around its equator," Mark Showalter told National Geographic.
Showalter first discovered Saturn's tiny satellite in 1990 through the images captured by the Voyager 2 spacecraft transmitted nine years earlier.
NASA's Cassini Mission To Saturn
Launched in 1997, Cassini is a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, with a total of 17 countries involved.
Since its arrival at Saturn back in July 1, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has since transmitted some of the most breathtaking and most detailed photographs ever taken of Saturn's icy rings, moons, and magnetosphere.
According to NASA, the Cassini probe has been key in several breakthrough discoveries, including a global ocean with signs of hydrothermal activity within the moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan.
Later this year, Cassini will reach the last part of its mission dubbed the "Grand Finale." The spacecraft will leap over Saturn's rings to begin its final series of daring dives between the planet and the inner edge of the rings.
NASA will end the 13-year mission by sending Cassini to its demise in the gas planet's atmosphere, where it will burn like a meteor. This way, it will not crash into one of Saturn's potentially habitable moons.