A couple of days ago, images sent back by the Cassini spacecraft revealed a very odd fact: Saturn’s tiny moon Pan is shaped like a UFO!
Scientists say this peculiar shape is the result of a natural process, but we could also interpret it as a sign of the aliens’ passage and a result of spacescaping. Just for fun.
On March 7, Cassini flew by Pan at a distance of around 15,000 miles and the images it snapped show the beauty and mystery of one of the smaller satellites in the solar system. Before these images were received, astronomers believed Pan was walnut-shaped.
But this is no walnut, it’s a hat tip to the classic flying saucer shape!
The 22 mile-wide satellite was discovered in 1990 by analyzing images taken by the Voyager 2 probe and is named after Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, among other things.
Alongside 61 other satellites, Pan orbits Saturn in what is known as the Encke Gap, a 200 mile-wide rift in the planet’s outermost ring. Astronomers say Pan is responsible for creating the gap and they’re even calling it a ring shepherd because its gravity keeps the gap free of ring particles.
The official theory about Pan’s peculiar shape is that it collected ring particles as it orbited and deposited them along its equator. After billions of orbits (Pan completes an orbit around Saturn in less than 14 hours), the dust and ice in the rings of Saturn became Pan’s weird rim. As one redditor brilliantly put it, “it’s a mini Saturn forming a mini ring, using parts from big Saturn’s big ring.”
If you thought Pan was all alone in its weirdness, you were wrong.
This is Atlas. It orbits near the outer edge of Saturn’s A Ring and it’s not much bigger than Pan. Just like Pan, it exhibits a prominent equatorial ridge.
So it may not be aliens who are responsible for the UFO shape that Saturnian satellites sometimes take but that doesn’t make them any less weirder.