NASA’s Cassini spacecraft while orbiting Saturn took some of the closest photos of Saturn’s moon, Atlas. The spacecraft flew within 7,000 miles of the moon, and was able to take the detailed pictures. Some astronomers have described Atlas as being lumpy making it look like a flying saucer. The spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since July of 2004, taking pictures of the planet, moons, and the rings around the planet.
Atlas is one of Saturn’s 62 known moons. It is one of 53 with a formal name. Atlas was discovered in 1980 by Richard Terrile and is named after Atlas a Titan in Greek mythology. The moon is also known as Saturn XV and is located on the outer ridge of the A ring. Oddly shaped, Atlas is only 19 miles in diameter and not big enough to be spherical. It is because of its odd shape, that piqued NASA’s interest. The International Business Times reported that Atlas’ “unusual shape has been attributed to ring material being swept by the moon.” Atlas’ distinct bumpy middle is made of this same material.
In a public statement, NASA said the images of Atlas were the closest that had ever been taken. The images will help characterize the shape and geology of the moon. The Space Reporter said that NASA’s Cassini craft had taken many photos of many strangely shaped moons,” including Mimas, Iapetus, and Pan, which most people think it to look like ravioli or an “empanada,” reported Space.com. Out of Saturn’s many moons, Titan and Enceladus may be habitable for microbial life.
In 2005, NASA dropped the Huygens probe to look at Titan’s surface. Before the spacecraft lost power, NASA was able to capture images of Titan’s clouds and surface. Through these pictures, NASA scientists were able to see that Titan resembled “early Earth and has surface lakes of liquid methane and ethane, according to The Space Reporter.
Before completing its 13-year mission, Cassini will take one last journey before ending later this year. It will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere taking pictures as it goes. Space.com reported that by falling the Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere, will ensure that NASA will not “contaminate” the moons of Enceladus or Titan. The craft completed its initial mission to explore Saturn’s system before starting its second half of studying the rings around Saturn. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a project in cooperation with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute