Ceres: New Images From NASA’s Dawn Mission Show Bright Craters

Anya Wassenberg - Author

Apr. 19 2016, Updated 5:55 p.m. ET

Ceres continues to intrigue NASA and the world astrophysics community in brand new images released today. The images were transmitted by the Dawn Mission from its final and closest orbit of Ceres.

The NASA images of Ceres focus on a feature called the Haulani Crater, with material that appears to shine brightly from the middle of its 21-mile (34-kilometer) diameter. The image also provides a number of clues about the surface of Ceres, including evidence of landslides along the rim of the crater. There are ridges and smoother areas that hint at tectonic activity. In enhanced false-color view, the material looks blue, a hue that has been associated with features that have only recently formed on Ceres’ surface.

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NASA’s Dawn Mission has racked up a couple of impressive firsts in the field of space exploration. It is the first spacecraft to orbit two different objects in the main asteroid belt. It also represents the very first time in history that humanity has been able to explore a dwarf planet.

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Ceres is a dwarf planet located in the asteroid belt which exists between Mars and Jupiter. Other than Ceres, Dawn has explored Vesta, a giant asteroid that has been found to be much like the terrestrial planets that, like Earth, inhabit the inner solar system.

Vesta, a protoplanet, was first discovered by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope but only in relatively unremarkable images that did not reveal its nature. The Dawn Mission went into orbit around Vesta in 2011 through most of 2012, delivering thousands of images and reams of data. After leaving Vesta’s orbit, the Dawn spacecraft was aimed at Ceres.

It took Dawn more than two years to track Ceres down through the asteroid belt before it was able to enter into orbit. The Dawn Probe settled into its closest and final orbit in December 2015 and began to transmit data back to earth. The latest image comes from a new Ceres mapping process that begun just this month with a goal of creating a more in-depth topographical understanding of the dwarf planet. In his latest update, Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, Marc Rayman notes that Dawn is orbiting at 240 miles or 385 kilometers above Ceres, taking pictures every 5.4 hours.

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NASA’s data has confirmed that Ceres possesses a thin atmosphere containing water vapor. Scientists theorize that Ceres is an icy dwarf planet with physical features much like the frozen planets of the outer solar system which lies beyond the asteroid belt, such as Saturn or Neptune.

The bluish material in the enhanced color image appears to have been pushed out from under the surface crust of Ceres.

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Martin Hoffmann, co-investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, comments on the conclusions that can be drawn from the striking image of Ceres in a NASA release.

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“Haulani perfectly displays the properties we would expect from a fresh impact into the surface of Ceres. The crater floor is largely free of impacts, and it contrasts sharply in color from older parts of the surface.”

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NASA researchers also note that the shape of the crater is different than those that have been found so far on Earth as well as the other planets we have observed. There, craters are typically almost circular in shape while the Haulani Crater, like others observed on Ceres, has a polygonal shape made up of straight lines – what Space called a “stop sign.” The straight edges are produced by faults that lie beneath the surface of Ceres.

Ceres’ Oxo Crater has also been the subject of study. The Dawn team is currently examining unique features of Oxo that will allow them to study the upper crust of Ceres.

NASA’s Dawn Mission is scheduled to continue studying Ceres until June of this year.

[Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]


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