NASA unveils tasty new images from the rings of Saturn

The closest ever pictures of one of Saturn’s innermost moons, Pan has led to a gastro-astronomical debate and comparisons to a walnut and a giant space ravioli

NASA unveils tasty new images from the rings of Saturn

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s spectacular Cassini mission has delivered astrophiles yet another treat as it nears the end of its 13-year orbit of Saturn.

On Tuesday, the satellite sent home the closest ever pictures of one of Saturn’s innermost moons, Pan.

The 20-mile-wide moonlet is located in a large gap within the rings of Saturn, known as the Encke gap.

The new images illustrate Pan’s unusual shape -with the bulging ring circling its rounded centre thought to be material from Saturn’s rings the moon has collected during its orbit around the planet.

Depending on your point of view – or perhaps your appetite – the moonlet resembles anything from a 1960s-style flying saucer to a walnut or even a doughy piece of ravioli.

These latest raw and unprocessed images of the tiny moon were taken on March 7th as Cassini performed a close-approach flyby at a distance of 24,572 kilometres:

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Scientists first predicted Pan’s existence in the mid-1980s after NASA’s voyager 2 spacecraft discovered unusual waves at the edges of the Encke Gap.

The waves only appeared intermittently – leading researchers to suspect some sort of large rock or moonlet was disrupting the orbital flow of the icy rings.

Pan was eventually discovered by astronomer Mark Showalter in 1990 amongst images snapped by Voyager 2.

The Cassini mission – a cooperative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency – has delivered some incredible findings during its 13-year orbit.

In 2005, the spacecraft deployed its Huygens lander – a tiny probe that detached and parachuted through the cloud tops of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, analysing the atmosphere all the way and eventually delivering the first-ever images from the moon’s freezing surface.

Image: ESA/NASA/Univ. of Arizona

Perhaps its most exciting discovery however was the icy geysers of liquid water bursting from the southern pole of the moon Enceladus.

Scientists believe there is an ocean of tidally heated liquid water beneath the surface of Enceladus, making it a prime target in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

In September, the spacecraft will plunge into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, delivering its final images before it disintegrates on its final descent.