Last month, NASA’s Dawn mission promised us unprecedented close-ups of the dwarf planet Ceres — the largest object in the asteroid belt stretching between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Now, the intrepid Dawn spacecraft, the first one to ever venture in this part of the solar system, has made good on its promises.
On Monday, NASA released two unique photos captured by Dawn’s cameras revealing “dramatic new views” of the Occator Crater on Ceres, a 50-mile (80-kilometer) wide impact site brimming with shiny salt deposits.
These are the closest-ever images taken of our solar system’s only dwarf planet and offer unparalleled insight into the bright spots on Ceres — bizarre surface features known as faculae, created by massive deposits of sodium carbonate.
Commenting on the photo release, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, likened the pioneering spacecraft to a “master artist.”
“Acquiring these spectacular pictures has been one of the greatest challenges in Dawn’s extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition, and the results are better than we had ever hoped. Dawn is like a master artist, adding rich details to the otherworldly beauty in its intimate portrait of Ceres.”
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the Dawn spacecraft maneuvered into a new orbit around Ceres in early June designed to bring the space probe 10 times closer to the dwarf planet than ever before.
In the past, the spacecraft had come as close as 240 miles (385 kilometers) of Ceres. This latest mission, the second one exploring the cosmic neighborhood of the dwarf planet, has brought Dawn within 22 miles (35 kilometers) from its surface.
The first photo, taken on June 14 from an altitude of about 24 miles (39 kilometers) above Ceres, showcases the group of bright spots located east of Occator Crater and collectively known as Vinalia Faculae.
Discovered by Dawn in 2015, when the spacecraft first reached Ceres, these mysterious faculae — including the largest one of them, Cerealia Facula, which resides at the heart of Occator Crater — are the biggest carbonate deposits ever uncovered outside our planet and might even be larger than those found on Mars.
As impressive as they may be, no one really knows exactly what caused them. So far, it’s still unclear whether the faculae on Ceres were exposed “from a shallow, sub-surface reservoir of mineral-laden water, or from a deeper source of brines (liquid water enriched in salts) percolating upward through fractures,” state NASA officials.
This second extended Dawn mission around Ceres might finally yield an answer to this question, as well as unravel the mystery of what goes on under its surface (via gravity measurements), and provide a detailed analysis of the dwarf planet’s composition (thanks to low-altitude observations with Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector, and visible and infrared mapping spectrometer).
The other Dawn snapshot released by NASA on July 2 captures Cerealia Facula as it’s never been seen before. Taken on June 22, the photo also reveals the prominent mound located on the western side of the facula.
To snap this picture, Dawn fired up its ion engine and plunged to a depth of about 21 miles (34 kilometers) of Ceres’ surface.
According to Space.com, this is likely the last time that Dawn gets to turn on its superefficient ion engine, as the spacecraft is running out of fuel for its thrusters and is nearing the end of its life.
Dawn’s principal investigator, Carol Raymond of JPL, chimed in on the spacecraft’s current mission at Ceres and its upcoming finale.
“The first views of Ceres obtained by Dawn beckoned us with a single, blinding bright spot. Unraveling the nature and history of this fascinating dwarf planet during the course of Dawn’s extended stay at Ceres has been thrilling, and it is especially fitting that Dawn’s last act will provide rich new data sets to test those theories.”
Launched in 2007, the Dawn spacecraft first popped by Vesta — the second-largest body in the asteroid belt, currently making its closest approach to Earth in 20 years, the Inquisitr recently reported — which it orbited for a little more than a year, from July 2011 through September 2012. Then, Dawn moved on to investigate Ceres, which it has been orbiting since March 2015.
NASA’s Dawn mission is the only one to study two extraterrestrial targets and is estimated to last until the second half of 2018. As reported by the JPL, which manages the Dawn mission, the spacecraft will not be crashing into Ceres, but instead, it will remain frozen in its last-known orbit, in order “to protect Ceres from Earthly contamination.”