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NASA spots new ‘Pac-Man’ in the Saturn system

NASA has spotted a new “Pac-Man” in the Saturn system, according to a recently-released report from the space agency. “Pac-Man, the Sequel” was spotted on Saturn’s moon Tethys. This, however, is not the first time that astronomers have spotted a Pac-Man-shaped feature in the Saturn system. The first Pac-Man-shaped feature was found on Saturn’s moon Mimas in 2010. NASA said that the pattern shows up in the thermal data obtained by the Cassini space telescope’s composite infrared spectrometer. The warmer areas make up the Pac-Man shape.

“Finding a second Pac-Man in the Saturn system tells us that the processes creating these Pac-Men are more widespread than previously thought,” said Carly Howett, the lead author of a paper on the discovery, in a statement. “The Saturn system – and even the Jupiter system – could turn out to be a veritable arcade of these characters.”

Astronomers think that the Pac-Man-shaped thermal signature appears on Saturn’s moon Tethys because of the way high-energy electrons bombard low latitudes on the side of the moon that faces forward as it circles around Saturn. Astronomers believe that the bombardment turns the forward-facing side of the moon into hard-packed ice. This icy surface does not heat as quickly in the sunshine or cool down as rapidly at night as the rest of the surface. Scientists theorize that discovering another Pac-Man on Saturn’s moon suggests that high-energy electrons can significantly alter the surface of an icy moon. Tethys is also being bombarded by icy particles from Enceladus’ plumes. This suggests that surface alteration is occurring more rapidly than its recoating by plume particles.

“Studies at infrared wavelengths give us a tremendous amount of information about the processes that shape planets and moons,” said Mike Flasar, the spectrometer’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. “A result like this underscores just how powerful these observations are.”

Astronomers spotted the new Pac-Man-shaped thermal signature in data obtained by Cassini on September 14, 2011. On this date, daytime temperatures inside the mouth of Pac-Man were cooler than their surroundings by 29 degrees Fahrenheit. Astronomers say that at Tethys, unlike Mimas, the Pac-Man-shaped pattern can also be spotted in visible-light images of the surface, as a dark lens-shaped region.

“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 statement. “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.”

The Pac-Man video game was released in the United States in October 1980. Pac-Man designer Toru Iwatani was eating pizza when he came up with the idea for the Pac-Man character. The classic video game quickly became an icon of the 1980s. Pac-Man is still one of the most popular video games in history. The video game is now a household name and one of the most highly sought-after games at pizza parlors.

See the Pac-Man-shaped heat signatures here.

The finding was recently detailed online in the journal Icarus.