Why Is Saturn Making So Much Pasta?

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn is having a moment. Today, NASA announced that one of its moons, Enceladus, has the key ingredients to support microbial life. Around the same time, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft dropped some jaw-dropping images of another one of Saturn’s quirky moons, and while this one may not have a subterranean ocean, it sure is an adorable little pasta.

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On Wednesday, April 12th, Cassini got up close and personal with Atlas, a little moon orbiting around Saturn’s A Ring, which was first imaged when Voyager 1 whizzed past the gas giant in 1980. The moon’s mean radius is just 9.4 miles, and while it might be small, it’s very distinct—its bulging equatorial ridge gives it a flattened appearance. While we’ve known about this oddball moon’s shape for some time, these new Cassini images are hard to beat. It’s just really good space ravioli.

One incident of space pasta would be remarkable, but in Saturn’s case, there are at least two. Last month, Cassini beamed back images of Saturn’s other gnocchi moon, Pan, and naturally, we lost our chill. At the time, Cassini imaging lead Carolyn Porco said Pan’s bulging equatorial ridge was likely caused by ring material accreted onto Pan after its formation. It’s very possible Atlas looks like it ought to be served in Alfredo sauce for the same reason. Gizmodo has reached out to Porco for comment and we will update this post if and when we hear back.

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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

It’s still unclear why only two of Saturn’s 62 moons (so far) look like little pasta. But as a space nerd and a nice Italian girl, it makes my heart sing.

Space Writer, Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

“Saturn is having a moment.”

No, Saturn is doing exactly what it’s been doing for four billion years; it’s we who are having a moment. We are living today in a Golden Age of astronomy. There are lots of people alive today who were alive when Hubble discovered that our galaxy isn’t the entire universe, and that all the little smudges they saw in their astro-photographs weren’t local gas clouds as people thought then, but entire galaxies. We’ve learned far more about the universe in the last 100 years than in all of human history before us.