Did Pac-Man eat a trail of star pellets and end up near the Saturn system?

Well, no. But Boulder scientists are having fun with a new thermo-image that came back showing an infrared Pac-Man-shape figure near Tethys, a small, airless moon.

And the image resembling the 1980s arcade icon could lead them to a better understanding of Saturn's icy moons.

In fact, it's the second time a Pac-Man-like shape has popped up in their images from Cassini. The pattern appears in thermal data obtained by Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer. The warmer areas make up the Pac-Man shape.

Scientists first observed the Pac-Man thermal shape on the Saturn moon Mimas. Their theory is high-energy electrons bombard the side of the moon that faces forward as it orbits Saturn. Then, the altered surface doesn't heat as quickly in the sunshine or cool down as fast at night like the rest of the surface does. They compare it to how a boardwalk feels cooler during the day but warmer at night than the nearby sand.

Carly Howett, a research scientist at Boulder's Southwest Research Institute, said there's some lighthearted fun surrounding the discovery. Colleagues and friends have given her all things Pac-Man, including bottle-cap openers and magnets.

"But there's been a bit of controversy over the images being called Pac-Men because then there's no gender equity," she said.


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On a more serious note, she said scientists aren't 100 percent certain as to what's causing the shape in the thermo-image, but they can conclude that the surfaces of the satellites aren't uniform. Finding the second Pac-Man shape in the Saturn system not only confirms that the high-energy electrons can alter the surface of an icy satellite but reveals the alteration is dramatic enough that it's not canceled out by icy particles in Saturn's "E-Ring" that blankets the moon's surface.

"Finding a new Pac-Man demonstrates the diversity of processes at work in the Saturn system," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a news release. "Future Cassini observations may reveal other new phenomena that will surprise us and help us better understand the evolution of moons in the Saturn system and beyond."

Saturn's moons are super-cold. The warmest temperature recorded on Tethys was minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit. At the nearby Mimas moon, the warmest temperature recorded was minus-290 degrees.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency and is taking an extensive tour of Saturn, its rings and moons.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.