A new view of Ceres, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 23, shows finer detail is becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) with a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. The image is part of a sequence taken for navigational purposes.
After transmitting these images to Earth on May 23, Dawn resumed ion-thrusting toward its second mapping orbit. On June 3, Dawn will enter this orbit and spend the rest of the month observing Ceres from 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above the surface. Each orbit during this time will be about three days, allowing the spacecraft to conduct an intensive study of Ceres.
The mysterious bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres are better resolved in a new sequence of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 3 and 4, 2015. The images were taken from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers). The animation is available at:
In this closest-yet view, the brightest spots within a crater in the northern hemisphere are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots. However, their exact nature remains unknown.
“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles.
After spending more than a month in orbit on the dark side of dwarf planet Ceres, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has captured several views of the sunlit north pole of this intriguing world. These images were taken on April 10 from a distance of 21,000 miles (33,000 kilometers), and they represent the highest-resolution views of Ceres to date.
Subsequent images of Ceres will show surface features at increasingly better resolution.
Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, marking the first time a spacecraft has orbited a dwarf planet. Previously, the spacecraft explored giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months from 2011 to 2012. Dawn has the distinction of being the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has entered an approach phase in which it will continue to close in on Ceres, a Texas-sized dwarf planet never before visited by a spacecraft. Dawn launched in 2007 and is scheduled to enter Ceres orbit in March 2015.
Dawn recently emerged from solar conjunction, in which the spacecraft is on the opposite side of the sun, limiting communication with antennas on Earth. Now that Dawn can reliably communicate with Earth again, mission controllers have programmed the maneuvers necessary for the next stage of the rendezvous, which they label the Ceres approach phase. Dawn is currently 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers) from Ceres, approaching it at around 450 miles per hour (725 kilometers per hour).
The spacecraft’s arrival at Ceres will mark the first time that a spacecraft has ever orbited two solar system targets. Dawn previously explored the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months, from 2011 to 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body.
Rocks are silent storytellers: because each mineral is created only under certain conditions, they provide insight into the evolution of the body on which they are found. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany have now begun to tell such a story from the enigmatic dark material discovered on the protoplanet Vesta. Using data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, the researchers have succeeded for the first time in identifying a mineral component of this material: serpentine. The new discovery puts an end to the discussion about the origin of the dark material: impacts of primitive asteroids must have distributed it on Vesta.
The protoplanet Vesta has been witness to an eventful past: images taken by the framing camera onboard NASA’s space probe Dawn show two enormous craters in the southern hemisphere. The images were obtained during Dawn’s year-long visit to Vesta that ended in September 2012. These huge impacts not only altered Vesta’s shape, but also its surface composition. Scientists under the lead of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany have shown that impacting small asteroids delivered dark, carbonaceous material to the protoplanet. In the early days of our solar system, similar events may have provided the inner planets such as Earth with carbon, an essential building block for organic molecules. These results were published in the November-December issue of the journal Icarus.
Like a movie star constantly retouching her makeup, the protoplanet Vesta is continually stirring its outermost layer and presenting a young face.
New data from NASA’s Dawn mission show that a common form of weathering that affects many airless bodies like Vesta in the inner solar system, including the moon, surprisingly doesn’t age the protoplanet’s outermost layer. The data also indicate that carbon-rich asteroids have been splattering dark material on Vesta’s surface over a long span of the body’s history.
Over time, soils on the moon and on asteroids have undergone extensive weathering. Scientists see this in the accumulation of tiny metallic particles containing iron, which dulls the bright, fluffy outer layers of these bodies. Yet Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) and framing camera detected no accumulation of these tiny particles on Vesta, and the protoplanet (sometimes called a giant asteroid) remains bright and pristine.