During its nearly 13 years exploring the Saturn system, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured some incredible close-up images of the planet, its rings, and its many moons — including Pandora, a little space rock with what looks like two googly eyes. On Tuesday, Cassini provided us with yet another gift by snapping super clear pictures of Pan, one of the innermost moons that we know about around Saturn. The images flaunt the truly funky shape of Pan: a rounded rock with a bulging ring at its equator.
This little moonlet is thought to be about 20 miles wide, and it’s located in a 200-mile-wide gap in Saturn’s rings known as the Encke Gap. In fact, Pan is known as a shepherd moon, meaning it moves ring particles around during its orbit and actually keeps the Encke Gap “open.” That bulge around the moon is thought to be material from Saturn’s rings that Pan has collected during its trip around the planet.
Researchers first predicted Pan’s existence in 1985, before the moon was ever seen. Images taken by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in the ‘80s showed strange waves in the inner and outer edges of the Encke Gap. The researchers noticed that the waves were only there sometimes, leading them to suspect they were being caused by a large moonlet that was embedded inside the gap. Pan was then finally spotted by Mark Showalter in 1990, after he sifted through images taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft nine years earlier.
We’ve always known of Pan’s walnut shape, but the recent Cassini images are some of the clearest yet of the moon. To mark the occasion, we need your opinion on what type of food or object this moon resembles. A lot of people floated around ravioli comparisons this morning, but I typically envision that pasta as square, so I demand a better analogy.
I decided to poll the Verge staff about what images this moon evokes for them:
Vlad Savov: Avocado
Liz Lopatto: Hand grenade
Andrew Marino: Belly button
Kimberly Mas: Empanada
Andy Hawkins (a dad): Dirty diaper
Sarah Bishop: “It’s kind of like FRESH naan.”
Russell Brandom: A madeleine or two pieces of orecchiette stuck together
William Joel: Gilligan’s hat
TC Sottek: That drug from Minority Report
Gavin Purcell: Floating wart and / or space pimple
Chris Plante: It’s obviously a hamburger balanced at an 80-degree angle
This seems like a hard one to solve. Plus, Pan isn’t alone in its weird shape. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard, noted that Pan is reminiscent of another moon in Saturn’s rings called Atlas.
He noted that they look like pierogies, which is actually a pretty good comparison.