Tag Archives: Dawn spacecraft

NASA reveals two new spectacular photos of Ceres

NASA released a new set of images of Ceres – and they’re a sight to behold.

A false-color image of Haulani Crater shows evidence of recent landslides. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The pictures were taken by the Dawn spacecraft, a space probe launched by NASA in 2007 to study Vesta and Ceres. After spending time around Vesta and revealing a trove of valuable information about it, Dawn is now orbiting Ceres already providing some surprises.

“Ceres continues to amaze, yet puzzle us, as we examine our multitude of images, spectra and now energetic particle bursts,” said Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The image above is of the Haulani Crater, a surprisingly bright impact crater on Ceres. It was taken when Dawn was still in its high-altitude mapping orbit, about 1,480 kilometers (920 miles) above Ceres. Spectacular as this image is, it was made to look even better. The image has been color enhanced, and the blueish streak you see is not the natural color of the crater.

“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,” said Dr. Martin Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany, in a statement.

Oxo Crater with the “slump” to the bottom right. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Another intriguing picture was snapped of the Oxo Crater, the second brightest feature on Ceres. Minerals on the bottom of this crater appear to be different than on the rest of the protoplanet, and astronomers want to study it in more detail in the future.

NASA continues to reveal insights about Ceres

At the European Planetary Science Conference in Nantes, France, NASA presented some spectacular maps and observations about Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, and the largest of the minor planets within the orbit of Neptune. Astronomers analyzed data coming from the Dawn spacecraft, which entered orbit around Ceres on 6 March 2015.

This view, made using images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, is a color-coded topographic map of Occator crater on Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“Ceres continues to amaze, yet puzzle us, as we examine our multitude of images, spectra and now energetic particle bursts,” said Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This color-coded map from NASA’s Dawn mission shows the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres – basically a topography map. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

For starters, NASA revealed tantalizing (false-color) maps of Ceres which definitely stole the show in Nantes. The maps highlight the compositional differences present on the surface, especially a puzzling, cone-shaped 4-mile-high (6-kilometer-high) mountain which is still an enigma. The mountain, which is now referred to as the Lonely Mountain, was found back in April, and while several theories have been proposed, no satisfying answer has stood out. Dawn’s chief investigator Christopher Russell said:

“We’re having difficulty understanding what made that mountain and we have been getting many suggestions from the public.”

The peculiar shapes of the craters on Ceres are also surprising.

“The irregular shapes of craters on Ceres are especially interesting, resembling craters we see on Saturn’s icy moon Rhea,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “They are very different from the bowl-shaped craters on Vesta.” Vesta is another large planetoid in the area.

Another unexpected observation was the data coming from the gamma ray and neutron spectrometer on Dawn. The instrument detected three bursts of energetic electrons – these may result from the interaction between Ceres and the Sun’s radiation, but that’s also not confirmed.

“This is a very unexpected observation for which we are now testing hypotheses,” Russell said.

Observations made on Ceres suggest that it has a differentiated body, a rocky core overlain with an icy mantle. This 100-kilometer-thick mantle (23%–28% of Ceres by mass) contains up to 200 million cubic kilometers of water, which would be more than the amount of fresh water on Earth. This result is supported by the observations made by the Keck telescope in 2002 and by evolutionary modeling, and Dawn observations are also consistent.

Dawn became the firsts mission to ever reach a dwarf planet, arriving at the planetoid on March 6, 2015, after it conducted measurements on March 6, 2015. Currently, Dawn is orbiting Ceres at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers); it will conduct several full orbits, each of which will last 11 days.


ceres bright spots

Mysterious bright spots on dwarf-planet Ceres imaged in detail by NASA spacecraft

NASA’s spacecraft Dawn is currently orbiting Ceres – a dwarf planet and the largest object in the asteroid belt – in order to study this highly fascinating, yet enigmatic object. For instance, strange and peculiar brights spots on its surface are still puzzling scientists. NASA has kindly shared some of the photos documenting these brights spots, taken by Dawn from only 2,700 miles above the surface.

ceres bright spots

Image: NASA

When these bright spots were first spotted by NASA researchers, everybody was amazed. All indications point to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but no one could tell for sure until the spacecraft came closer. Even at 2,700 miles away, things aren’t clear yet what these spots, each about 6 miles wide nestled inside giant craters up to 50 miles wide, are supposed to be or how they formed.

Ceres bright spots

Image: NASA


What’s certain is that the eight spots that have spotted so far are made up of some kind of reflective material, either ice or salt. Maybe even glass formed by impacts, considering all the spots are found inside craters.  No alien cities I’m afraid.

“The surface of Ceres has revealed many interesting and unique features. For example, icy moons in the outer solar system have craters with central pits, but on Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common. These and other features will allow us to understand the inner structure of Ceres that we cannot sense directly,” Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the JPL-based Dawn mission, said in the release.

Another interesting feature is a large, mountain-like peak that stands five miles high. That’s peculiar considering the rest of the dwarf planet’s surface is virtually flat. We’ll know more for certain once Ceres descends to a lower orbit.

“Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct targets in our solar system. It arrived at Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, on March 6, 2015,” read NASA’s release. “Dawn will remain in its current altitude until June 30, continuing to take images and spectra of Ceres in orbits of about three days each. It then will move into its next orbit at an altitude of 900 miles (1,450 kilometers), arriving in early August.”

Ceres bright spots

Image: NASA

Dwarf Planet Ceres reveals its colors, but keeps its secrets

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft already has an impressive resume – it’s traveled to the asteroid belt and managed to start orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, even though Ceres measures only 950 kilometers (590 miles) in diameter and has a very small gravitational field. But it’s not stopping just yet – after previously revealing a number of black and white pictures, Dawn has now provided a color photograph, but here’s the thing – it poses more questions than it answers.

Infrared images suggest that Spot 1 (top row), an area on Ceres, is made of ice. But the pair of bright gleams known as Spot 5 were invisible to an infrared camera (bottom right). Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It comprises of rock and ice, and despite its small size (it’s about as big as Argentina), it is considered to be a dwarf planet (though some astronomers consider it an asteroid). Subsequently, it’s drawn quite a lot of scientific interest, and Hubble first looked at it a few years ago; but it wasn’t until the Dawn spacecraft actually started orbiting it that we got a really good look at it.

“This is the first idea of what the surface looks like,” said Martin Hoffmann, a Dawn scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany.

Dawn took several tantalizing pictures of bright spots on Ceres, which might be the result of some active geology – something extremely exciting. In total, astronomers noticed 5 particular spots which they are trying to figure out.

The surface of the dwarf planet Ceres (shown here) has fewer large craters than researchers expected. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

But could a celestial body so small actually have proper geology? Some scientists have speculated that one of the spots could be linked to an icy plume – a feature of so-called ‘cryovolcanoes’, volcanoes that spew ice and water instead of magma and ash. Finding such a small and yet active body is intriguing to say the least, but for now, Ceres is still keeping its secrets. We don’t know for sure what those spots are, how they were created, whether or not there is active geology or even whether frozen volcanoes actually exist.

“Dawn took its most recent set of images on 10 April, but only a small fraction of Ceres’s surface was illuminated at the time and mission scientists have not yet released them. The spacecraft will begin detailed science investigations on 23 April, after it settles into permanent orbit around Ceres,” Nature writes.

Dawn will near Ceres even more and take even more revealing, hopefully helping unravel the secrets that Ceres is hiding. The fact that we can get up-close and personal with something that’s so small and 400 million km away is absolutely mind blowing to me

Dawn spacecraft will soon figure out what Ceres actually is

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has set sail to Ceres – one of the most intriguing objects in our solar system. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, containing a third of all the mass in the asteroid belt. The unmanned Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in early 2015, and will hopefully shed provide new insights not only on Ceres itself, but also the asteroid belt and the solar system.

Ceres as seen by Hubble Space Telescope (ACS). The contrast has been enhanced to reveal surface details.

The asteroid belt is a very accurate name – it represents the place between  the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter, occupied by numerous irregular bodies, called asteroids. But among all these asteroids, Ceres alone is considered a dwarf planet – an object the size of a planet (a planetary-mass object) but that is neither a planet nor a moon or other natural satellite. Ceres has a diameter of about 950 km, and to put it bluntly… we don’t really know what it is.

Ceres is probably a surviving protoplanet (planetary embryo), which formed 4.57 billion years ago in the asteroid belt – this is the main theory. In 2014, Ceres was found to have an atmosphere with water vapor, confirmed by the Herschel space telescope, which adds even more mystery to Ceres. Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt is also a point of interest.

“These two bodies are much more massive than any body yet visited in this region of space and are truly small planets,” the Dawn mission team, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), wrote in their mission statement.

Studying these objects could also tell us more about our solar system – no matter what’s there, it’s almost certainly unchanged since the early days of the planetary formation.

Ceres (bottom left), the Moon and the Earth, shown to scale. Image via Wiki Commons.

“When Dawn visits Ceres and Vesta, the spacecraft steps us back in solar system time,” the JPL team said.

In 2007, Dawn paid a short visit to Vesta, and found a dry and metallic wasteland. Astronauts are expecting quite a different story with Ceres – maybe even some water under the icy surface, though that’s highly debatable. Whatever it is, the good thing is that we’ll have a chance to study.

“Now, finally, we have a spacecraft on the verge of unveiling this mysterious, alien world,” Marc Rayman, chief engineer and mission director of the Dawn mission, said in a statement. “Soon it will reveal myriad secrets Ceres has held since the dawn of the solar system.”