NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured a series of stunning images highlighting the strange nature of Saturn's ring-shaping moon, Pan. The new shots represent the closest view ever taken of the enigmatic moon, which orbits within Saturn's A-ring, maintaining a 200-mile-wide (325 km) opening in the icy debris known as the Encke Gap.
Cassini is currently engaged in a series of close proximity passes with Saturn's A-ring, This penultimate phase of Cassini's mission is affording the spacecraft an excellent view of the gas giant's delicate ring system and lesser-seen moons. Cassini will perform a further five ring passes before beginning its final mission phase known as the "Grand Finale" on April 26.
Pan represents one of the shepherd moons that are known to orbit within Saturn's ring material. The presence of these small moons forms and maintains huge gaps in the rings, and their gravitational influence is responsible for creating subtle wave-like patterns in the ring matter spanning hundreds of miles on either side of their orbital path.
At its point of closest approach during its March 7 flyby, Cassini passed within 15,268 miles (14,572 km) of Pan, allowing the probe to get (relatively) up close and personal with the weird little moon. The newly released raw images highlight Pan's irregular, squashed structure, which is dominated by a prominent equatorial ridge, which gives the satellite a peculiar flying saucer-like appearance, or that of a ravioli.
The Cassini team believes that the new images will help scientists to unravel some of the many questions surrounding Pan, including its distinctive appearance and geology.