The most dazzling views ever seen of dwarf planet Ceres and its mysterious bright spots are what’s on tap by year’s end as NASA’s amazing Dawn spacecraft starts a gradual but steep descent over the next two months to its lowest and final orbit around the bizarre icy body.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) successfully fired up the probes exotic ion propulsion system to begin lowering Dawn’s orbital altitude to less than a quarter of what it has been for the past two months of intense mapping operations.
On Oct. 23, Dawn began a seven-week-long dive that uses ion thruster #2 to reduce the spacecrafts vantage point from 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) at the High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) down to less than 235 miles (380 kilometers) above Ceres at the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO).
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Dawn is slated to arrive at LAMO by mid-December, just in time to begin delivering the long awaiting Christmas treats.
Ceres has absolutely tantalized researchers far beyond their wildest expectations.
When Dawn arrives at LAMO it will be the culmination of an eight year interplanetary voyage that began with a blastoff on September 27, 2007 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex-17B (SLC-17B) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
LAMO marks Dawn’s fourth, lowest and final science orbit at Ceres where the highest resolution observations will be gathered and images from the framing camera will achieve a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.
At LAMO, researchers hope to finally resolve the enduring mystery of the nature of the bright spots that have intrigued science and the general public since they were first glimpsed clearly early this year as Dawn was on its final approach to Ceres.
Dawn arrived in orbit this past spring on March 6, 2015.
The science team has just released a new mosaic of the brightest spots on Ceres found at Occator crater and the surrounding terrain – see above.
The images were taken from the HAMO altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) during the first of six mapping cycles. They have a resolution of 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel.
Occator measures about 60 miles (90 kilometers) across and 2 miles (4 kilometers) deep.
Because the spots are so bright they are generally overexposed. Therefore the team took two sets of images, with shorter and longer exposure times, to maximize the details of the interior of Occator.
“This view uses a composite of two images of Occator: one using a short exposure that captures the detail in the bright spots, and one where the background surface is captured at normal exposure.”
The bright spots at Occator crater remain the biggest Cerean mystery.
So far the imagery and other science data may point to evaporation of salty water from the interior as the source of the bright spots.
“Occasional water leakage on to the surface could leave salt there as the water would sublime,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator told Universe Today exclusively.
“The big picture that is emerging is that Ceres fills a unique niche.”
“Ceres fills a unique niche between the cold icy bodies of the outer solar system, with their rock hard icy surfaces, and the water planets Mars and Earth that can support ice and water on their surfaces,” Russell, of the University of California, Los Angeles, told me.
Dawn has peeled back Ceres secrets as the spacecraft orbits lower and lower. Detailed measurements gathered to date have yielded global mineral and topographic maps from HAMO with the best resolution ever as the science team painstakingly stitched together the probes spectral and imaging products.
And the best is yet to come at LAMO.
At HAMO, Dawn’ instruments, including the Framing Camera and Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (VIR) were aimed at slightly different angles in each mapping cycle allowing the team to generate stereo views and construct 3-D maps.
“The emphasis during HAMO is to get good stereo data on the elevations of the surface topography and to get good high resolution clear and color data with the framing camera,” Russell explained.
Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.
The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target where it conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.
Ceres is a Texas-sized world, ranks as the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and may have a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could be hospitable to life.
The mission is expected to last until at least March 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.
“It will end some time between March and December,” Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, told Universe Today.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.