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NASA's Cassini Spacecraft reveals secrets of Saturn's miniature ravioli moons

Data collected by NASA's Cassini probe as they made a close flyby to Saturn in the final days of their mission revealed new details on the planet's nearby mini-ravioli moons. Saturn's rings have strange surfaces covered with material from Saturn's iconic rings and particles of ice that, according to NASA, are blasted from Saturn's larger moon Enceladus.

They also have an unusual shape – instead of being spherical, they are blob and ravioli-like, with material glued around the equators.

The graph shows the ring moons inspected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in super-close fly-bys. (Photo credit: NASA-JPL / Caltech)

"We found that these moons pick up ice and dust particles from the rings to form the small skirts around their equators," said Bonnie Buratti of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "A denser body would be more spherical because gravity would attract the material."

The study, published in a paper published in the journal Science relied on data collected by six Cassini instruments before the end of its mission in 2017.

Of course, we have known since Primeval times of Saturn, but we have only recently known about the Inner Moons – known as Pan, Daphnis, Atlas, Pandora and Epimetheus. For example, Pan was discovered in 1985, while Daphnis did not start until 2005.

Of the satellites studied, the surfaces of the Saturn – Daphnis and Pan – were most strongly modified by ring materials. [19659009] Mounting the NASA Spacecraft Views Cassini shows three of the small ring moons that were inspected during close fly-bys: Atlas, Daphnis, and Pan. (Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute)

The most important piece of the puzzle was a data set from Cassini's Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometers (VIMS), which collected light visible to the human eye as well as longer infrared light. It was the first time that Cassini was close enough to make a spectral map of the surface of the innermost moon pan. By analyzing the spectra, VIMS was able to learn the composition of the materials on all five moons.

VIMS recognized that the ring moons closest to Saturn appear most reddish, similar to the color of the main rings. Scientists do not yet know the exact composition of the material that appears red, but they believe it is probably a mixture of organic material and iron.

The moons outside the main rings, on the other hand, appear rather blue the light of Enceladus' icy clouds.

The Ringmonde Fly-bys between December 2016 and April 2017 employed all Cassini optical remote sensing instruments that study the electromagnetic spectrum. They worked alongside the instruments that studied dust, plasma, and magnetic fields, and how these elements interact with the moons.

Scientists still are not sure what triggered the moons, but they will do it Use the new data to model scenarios, and could also apply the findings to small moons transferring other planets and possibly even to asteroids.

"Interact the moons of the giant ice planets Uranus and Neptune with their thinner rings to form features Similar to Saturn's ring moons? "Buratti asked. "These are questions to be answered by future missions."

Cassini's mission ended in September 2017, when there was not enough fuel. The spacecraft was deliberately submerged in the atmosphere of Saturn by mission controllers to avoid the risk of its entering the planet's moons. NASA is expected to reveal more science from Cassini's last orbits in the coming months, known as the "Grand Finale."

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