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

Anya Wassenberg

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.

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.

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.

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

"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."

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]