A Surprising Pan

You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now.  Every time I think I’ve seen it all, that I’ve seen every strange phenomenon in space, every unique planet, moon, star, galaxy, every variation, I’m proven wrong.  I expect that the order has been established and everything newly discovered will fall into a category with no more unique variation. But here we are again.  The close up view of Pan.

Pan, Moon of Saturn. Credit: NASA / Cassini

Pan was photographed only a few days ago by the Cassini spacecraft as it carries out the final months of it’s mission to Saturn.  It was revealed to be a strange object with a unique shape and a ring of ice and snow making it look like a cosmic bowler hat.  Why does it have this unique shape and appearance? It’s a shepherd moon.

Pan shown between the Encke gap of Saturn’s rings. Credit: NASA / Cassini

Pan resides in the Encke gap, a 300-ish Km space between Saturn’s outer rings. In fact this Moon gravitationally sweeps out the gap in the rings, continuously maintaining the gap. During this process it has accumulated the dust and ice that forms the ring particles, creating the smooth ringed ridge easily seen in the images.  If it looks too amazing to be real, be prepared to have your mind blown.  The movement of Cassini brings the series of images to life.

GIF of images from Cassini. Credit: NASA / Cassini

Pan’s strangeness is a good thing, I enjoy being surprised. What it really means is that there is still more to learn, more to be excited about, more to discover, and unique places that haven’t even been conceived of by human minds.   Pan reminds me that the possibilities are endless, and we have barely even seen what our own solar system is capable of.  Next up for Cassini is Atlas, another shepherd moon.  What unknown secrets are yet to be revealed in Cassini’s final months?

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