Phenomenal New View of Ceres ‘Lonely Mountain’ Reveals Signs of Volcanic Activity

A lonely 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain on Ceres is likely volcanic in origin, and the dwarf planet may have a weak, temporary atmosphere. These are just two of many new insights about Ceres from NASA's Dawn mission published this week in six papers in the journal Science. "Dawn has revealed that Ceres is a diverse world that clearly had geological activity in its recent past," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Temporary Atmosphere A surprising finding emerged in the paper led by Russell: Dawn may have detected a weak, temporary atmosphere. Dawn's gamma ray and neutron (GRaND) detector observed evidence that Ceres had accelerated electrons from the solar wind to very high energies over a period of about six days. In theory, the interaction between the solar wind's energetic particles and atmospheric molecules could explain the GRaND observations. A temporary atmosphere would be consistent with the water vapor the Herschel Space Observatory detected at Ceres in 2012-2013. The electrons that GRaND detected could have been produced by the solar wind hitting the water molecules that Herschel observed, but scientists are also looking into alternative explanations. "We're very excited to follow up on this and the other discoveries about this fascinating world," Russell said. Ahuna Mons as a Cryovolcano Ahuna Mons is a volcanic dome unlike any seen elsewhere in the solar system, according to a new analysis led by Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Universities Space Research Association. Ruesch and colleagues studied formation models of volcanic domes, 3-D terrain maps and images from Dawn, as well as analogous geological features elsewhere in our solar system. This led to the conclusion that the lonely mountain is likely volcanic in nature. Specifically, it would be a cryovolcano -- a volcano that erupts a liquid made of volatiles such as water, instead of silicates. "This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past," Ruesch said. For more details on this study, see: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/ceres-cryo-volcano Ceres: Between a Rocky and Icy Place While Ahuna Mons may have erupted liquid water in the past, Dawn has detected water in the present, as described in a study led by Jean-Philippe Combe of the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Washington. Combe and colleagues used Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) to detect probable water ice at Oxo Crater, a small, bright, sloped depression at mid-latitudes on Ceres. Exposed water-ice is rare on Ceres, but the low density of Ceres, the impact-generated flows and the very existence of Ahuna Mons suggest that Ceres' crust does contain a significant component of water-ice. This is consistent with a study of Ceres' diverse geological features led by Harald Hiesinger of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. The diversity of geological features on Ceres is further explored in a study led by Debra Buczkowski of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland. Impact craters are clearly the most abundant geological feature on Ceres, and their different shapes help tell the intricate story of Ceres' past. Craters that are roughly polygonal -- that is, shapes bounded by straight lines -- hint that Ceres' crust is heavily fractured. In addition, several Cerean craters have patterns of visible fractures on their floors. Some, like tiny Oxo, have terraces, while others, such as the large Urvara Crater (106 miles, 170 kilometers wide), have central peaks. There are craters with flow-like features, and craters that imprint on other craters, as well as chains of small craters. Bright areas are peppered across Ceres, with the most reflective ones in Occator Crater. Some crater shapes could indicate water-ice in the subsurface. The dwarf planet's various crater forms are consistent with an outer shell for Ceres that is not purely ice or rock, but rather a mixture of both -- a conclusion reflected in other analyses. Scientists also calculated the ratio of various craters' depths to diameters, and found that some amount of crater relaxation must have occurred. Additionally, there are more craters in the northern hemisphere of Ceres than the south, where the large Urvara and Yalode craters are the dominant features. "The uneven distribution of craters indicates that the crust is not uniform, and that Ceres has gone through a complex geological evolution," Hiesinger said. Distribution of Surface Materials What are the rocky materials in Ceres' crust? A study led by Eleonora Ammannito of the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that clay-forming minerals called phyllosilicates are all over Ceres. These phyllosilicates are rich in magnesium and also have some ammonium embedded in their crystalline structure. Their distribution throughout the dwarf planet's crust indicates Ceres' surface material has been altered by a global process involving water. Although Ceres' phyllosilicates are uniform in their composition, there are marked differences in how abundant these materials are on the surface. For example, phyllosilicates are especially prevalent in the region around the smooth, "pancake"-like crater Kerwan (174 miles, 280 kilometers in diameter), and less so at Yalode Crater (162 miles, 260 kilometers in diameter), which has areas of both smooth and rugged terrain around it. Since Kerwan and Yalode are similar in size, this may mean that the composition of the material into which they impacted may be different. Craters Dantu and Haulani both formed recently in geologic time, but also seem to differ in composition. "In comparing craters such as Dantu and Haulani, we find that their different material mixtures could extend beneath the surface for miles, or even tens of miles in the case of the larger Dantu," Ammannito said. Looking Higher Now in its extended mission, the Dawn spacecraft has delivered a wealth of images and other data from its current perch at 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres' surface, which is closer to the dwarf planet than the International Space Station is to Earth. The spacecraft will be increasing its altitude at Ceres on Sept. 2, as scientists consider questions that can be examined from higher up. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Whoa – what a sight! Ceres’ lonely mountain, Ahuna Mons, is seen in this simulated perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA’s Dawn mission in August from an altitude of 240 miles (385 km) in August 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

An isolated 3-mile-high (5 km) mountain Ahuna Mons on Ceres is likely volcanic in origin, and the dwarf planet may have a weak, temporary atmosphere. These are just two of many new insights about Ceres from NASA’s Dawn mission published this week in six papers in the journal Science.

Ceres' mysterious mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. On its steepest side, this mountain is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) high. Its average overall height is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). The diameter of the mountain is about 12 miles (20 kilometers). Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit, 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface, in December 2015. Credits: NASA/JPL/Dawn mission
Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. On its steepest side, this mountain is about 3 miles (5 km) high. Its average overall height is 2.5 miles (4 km). The diameter of the mountain is about 12 miles (20 km). Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit, 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface, in December 2015.
Credits: NASA/JPL/Dawn mission

“Dawn has revealed that Ceres is a diverse world that clearly had geological activity in its recent past,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Ahuna Mons dome compared to a dome in Russia. The similarity in appearance is striking though the difference in size is large. Credit: NASA
The Ahuna Mons dome compared to a dome in Russia. The similarity in appearance is striking though the difference in size is large. Credit: NASA

Ahuna Mons is a volcanic dome similar to earthly and lunar volcanic domes but unique in the solar system, according to a new analysis led by Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Universities Space Research Association. While those on Earth erupt with molten rock, Ceres’ grandest peak likely formed as a salty-mud volcano. Instead of molten rock, salty-mud volcanoes, or “cryovolcanoes,” release frigid, salty water sometimes mixed with mud.


Learn more about Ahuna Mons

“This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past,” Ruesch said. Estimates place the mountain formation within the past billion years.

Dawn may also have detected a weak, temporary atmosphere; the probe’s gamma ray and neutron (GRaND) detector observed evidence that Ceres had accelerated electrons from the solar wind to very high energies over a period of about six days. In theory, the interaction between the solar wind’s energetic particles and atmospheric molecules could explain the GRaND observations.

Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel space observatory between 2011 and 2013 find that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapour atmosphere. It is the first unambiguous detection of water vapour around an object in the asteroid belt. The inset shows the water absorption signal detected by Herschel on 11 October 2012. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab/Küppers et al.
Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory between 2011 and 2013 found that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapor atmosphere, the first detection ever of water vapor around an asteroid in the asteroid belt. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab/Küppers et al.

A temporary atmosphere would confirm the water vapor the Herschel Space Observatory detected at Ceres in 2012-2013. The electrons that GRaND detected could have been produced by the solar wind hitting the water molecules that Herschel observed, but scientists are also looking into alternative explanations.

While Ahuna Mons may have erupted liquid water in the not-too-distant past, Dawn found probable water ice right now in the mid-latitude Oxo Crater using its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR).

The small, bright crater Oxo (6 miles, 10 kilometers wide) on Ceres is seen in this perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA's Dawn mission. Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) has found evidence of water ice at this crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The small, bright crater Oxo (6 miles / 10 km wide) on Ceres is seen in this perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA’s Dawn mission. Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) has found evidence of water ice at this crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Exposed water-ice is rare on the dwarf planet, but the low density of Ceres — 2.08 grams/cm3 vs. 5.5 for Earth — the impact-generated ice detection and the the existence of Ahuna Mons suggest that Ceres’ crust does contain a significant amount of water ice.

Impact craters are clearly the most abundant geological feature on Ceres, and their different shapes help tell the complex story of Ceres’ past. Craters that are roughly polygonal — shapes bounded by straight lines — hint that Ceres’ crust is heavily fractured. In addition, several Cerean craters display fractures on their floors. There are craters with flow-like features. Bright areas are peppered across Ceres, with the most reflective ones in Occator Crater. Some crater shapes could indicate water-ice in the subsurface.

In this illustration, a mud slurry rises up through Ceres' crust to build a dome such as Ahuna Mons. Credit: Goddard Media Studios
In this illustration, a mud slurry rises up through Ceres’ crust to build a dome like Ahuna Mons. Click to see the animation. Credit: Goddard Media Studios

All these crater forms imply an outer shell for Ceres that is not purely ice or rock, but rather a mixture of both. Scientists also calculated the ratio of various craters’ depths to diameters, and found that some amount of crater relaxation must have occurred as icy walls gradually slump.

“The uneven distribution of craters indicates that the crust is not uniform, and that Ceres has gone through a complex geological evolution,” Hiesinger said.

The rim of Hamori Crater on Ceres is seen in the upper right portion of this image, which was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Hamori is located in the southern hemisphere of Ceres and measures 37 miles (60 kilometers) wide. Researchers named Hamori for a Japanese god said to protect the leaves of trees.
The rim of Hamori Crater on Ceres is seen in the upper left portion of this image, which was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Clay is found at many locations on the dwarf planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres’ crust also appears loaded with clay-forming minerals called phyllosilicates. These phyllosilicates are rich in magnesium and also have some ammonium embedded in their crystalline structure. Their distribution throughout the dwarf planet’s crust indicates Ceres’ surface material has been altered by a global process involving water.

Now in its extended mission, the Dawn spacecraft has been increasing its altitude since Sept. 2 as scientists stand back once again for a broader look at Ceres under different lighting conditions now compared to earlier in the mission.

Large Impact Craters on Ceres Have Gone Missing

Scientists have found a bit of a mystery at the dwarf planet Ceres. Yes, there are those intriguing bright spots inside numerous craters, which is a mystery that has mostly been solved (the bright areas likely made of bright salts leftover from the sublimation of a briny solution of sodium carbonate and ammonium chloride; read more details in this NASA article.)

But a new puzzle involves the craters themselves. In the rough and tumble environment of the asteroid belt, ancient Ceres was certainly pummeled by numerous large asteroids during its 4.5 billion-year lifetime. But yet, there are just a few large craters on Ceres.

How could that be?

“It is as though Ceres cures its own large impact scars and regenerates new surfaces, over and over,” said Dr. Simone Marchi, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.

Scientists with NASA's Dawn mission were surprised to find that Ceres has no clear signs of truly giant impact basins. This image shows both visible (left) and topographic (right) mapping data from Dawn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI.
Scientists with NASA’s Dawn mission were surprised to find that Ceres has no clear signs of truly giant impact basins. This image shows both visible (left) and topographic (right) mapping data from Dawn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI.

Ceres has lots of little craters, but the Dawn spacecraft, orbiting Ceres since early 2015, has found only 16 craters larger than 100 km, and none larger than 280 km (175 miles) across. Scientists who model asteroid collisions in our Solar System predicted Ceres should have amassed up to 10 to 15 craters larger than 400 kilometers (250 miles) wide, and at least 40 craters larger than 100 km (62 miles) wide.

By comparison, Dawn’s other target of study, the smaller asteroid Vesta, has several large craters, including one 500 kilometers (300 miles) in diameter, covering almost the entire south pole region.

While they aren’t visible now, the scientists say there are clues that large impact basins may be hidden beneath Ceres’ surface.

“We concluded that a significant population of large craters on Ceres has been obliterated beyond recognition over geological time scales, likely the result of Ceres’ peculiar composition and internal evolution,” Marchi said.

The top of this false-color image includes a grazing view of Kerwan, Ceres’ largest impact crater. This well-preserved crater is 280 km (175 miles) wide and is well defined with red-yellow high-elevation rims and a deep central depression shown in blue. Kerwan gradually degrades as one moves toward the center of the image into an 800-km (500-mile) wide, 4-km (2.5-mile) deep depression (in green) called Vendimia Planitia. This depression is possibly what’s left of one of the largest craters from Ceres’ earliest collisional history. Credit: SwRI/Simone Marchi.
The top of this false-color image includes a grazing view of Kerwan, Ceres’ largest impact crater. This well-preserved crater is 280 km (175 miles) wide and is well defined with red-yellow high-elevation rims and a deep central depression shown in blue. Kerwan gradually degrades as one moves toward the center of the image into an 800-km (500-mile) wide, 4-km (2.5-mile) deep depression (in green) called Vendimia Planitia. This depression is possibly what’s left of one of the largest craters from Ceres’ earliest collisional history. Credit: SwRI/Simone Marchi.

There are hints of about three shallow depressions around 800 km (500 miles) wide, and Marchi said they could be what are called or planitiae, or ancient impact basins, left over from large collisions that took place early in Ceres’ history.

There are a few possible reasons why the big craters have been erased, and the scientists now have to figure out which reason or combination of reasons best explain their findings. One reason could be because of large amounts of water or ice in Ceres’ interior, which has long been suspected. Does the absence of large craters lend any insight into Ceres’ water content?

“It might,” Marchi said via email. “There is evidence for ice locally at the surface but it is not clear how much water ice there is in the subsurface.”

Marchi said the craters allow scientists to “probe” down to different depths, depending on their sizes, and that the missing large craters (greater than 100 km in diameter) can provide information on the properties on just the upper 100-200 km or so of Ceres’s outer shell.

Because ice is less dense than rock, the topography could “relax” over time — like what happens if you push on your skin, then take the pressure off, and it relaxes back to its original shape, although this happened extremely more slowly on Ceres. The scientists said that over geological timescales of several million years the water or ice would slowly flow and the craters would smooth out.

Additionally, recent analysis of the center of Ceres’ Occator Crater — where the largest bright areas are located — suggests that the salts found there could be remnants of a frozen ocean under the surface, and that liquid water could have been present in Ceres’ interior.

A recent paper constrains the amount of subsurface ice to be no more than 30-40%.

“However, the lack of large craters cannot be solely explained by the presence of 30-40% of water,” Marchi told Universe Today.

Another reason for the lack of large craters could be hydrothermal activity, such as geysers or cryovolcanoes, which could have flowed across the surface, possibly burying pre-existing large craters. Smaller impacts would have then created new craters on the resurfaced area. Hydrothermal activity has been linked to bright areas on Ceres, as well.

A close look at some of the craters on Ceres show cracked-like surfaces and other areas that looks like there was flow of the surface that “softened” some of the features. Marchi said the team is still working to clarify the Ceres’ peculiar composition and how cryolava or “low viscous material” could have caused the crater rims and bowls to “relax.”

The bright central spots near the center of Occator Crater are shown in enhanced color in this view from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. The view was produced by combining the highest resolution images taken in February 2016 (at image scales 115 feet (35 meters) per pixel of 35 meters with color images obtained in September 2015 at a lower resolution. Click for a highest-res view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
The bright central spots near the center of Occator Crater are shown in enhanced color in this view from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. The view was produced by combining the highest resolution images taken in February 2016 (at image scales 115 feet (35 meters) per pixel of 35 meters with color images obtained in September 2015 at a lower resolution. Click for a highest-res view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

“This is still work in progress,” he told Universe Today. “Ceres is far more richer than Vesta in terms of smooth, flow features. Given that they are in the same environment (e.g. similar impact speed with asteroids), one would think that the production of impact melts would be the same. Thus the fact that we see more flow features on Ceres is a confirmation of its peculiar composition. This may facilitate production of impact “melt” (or ‘mud’ if there is enough water and clays).”

Another reason for the lack of large craters is that smaller, later impacts could have erased the bigger older impact basins. But if that were the case, the older basins would seemingly be more visible than they are now.

But the answer to this puzzle might all come back to the intriguing bright areas on Ceres.

“The presence of ammoniated phyllosilicates, carbonates and salts is truly amazing,” Marchi said. “I think this peculiar composition and Ceres’ internal structure are responsible for the lack of large craters, although we do not know precisely what the obliteration mechanism is.”

Marchi said the large crater obliteration was active well after the late heavy bombardment era, or about 4 billion year ago, so the resurfacing is inextricably linked to Ceres itself and its internal evolution, not impact events.

“All this shows over and over how peculiar Ceres is,” Marchi said. “Beside being a transition object (at inner/outer solar system boundary), it is peculiar in composition, and now also in cratering record.”

Finding out more about Ceres’ interior is one of the more intriguing aspects of Dawn’s continued mission there.

Marchi is lead author of the paper, “The Missing Large Impact Craters on Ceres,” published in the July 26, 2016, issue of Nature Communications.

Sources: Email exchange with Marchi, SwRI, JPL

NASA Approves New Horizons Extended KBO Mission, Keeps Dawn at Ceres

New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.
New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.

In an ‘Independence Day’ gift to a slew of US planetary research scientists, NASA has granted approval to nine ongoing missions to continue for another two years this holiday weekend.

The biggest news is that NASA green lighted a mission extension for the New Horizons probe to fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt and decided to keep the Dawn probe at Ceres forever, rather than dispatching it to a record breaking third main belt asteroid.

And the exciting extension news comes just as the agency’s Juno probe is about to ignite a do or die July 4 fireworks display to achieve orbit at Jupiter – detailed here.

“Mission approved!” the researchers gleefully reported on the probes Facebook and Twitter social media pages.

“Our extended mission into the #KuiperBelt has been approved. Thanks to everyone for following along & hopefully the best is yet to come.

Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in this false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials.  The image is centered on Ceres brightest spots at Occator crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in this false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials. The image is centered on Ceres brightest spots at Occator crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The New Horizons spacecraft will now continue on course in the Kuiper Belt towards an small object known as 2014 MU69, to carry out the most distant close encounter with a celestial object in human history.

“Here’s to continued success!”

The spacecraft will rendezvous with the ancient rock on New Year’s Day 2019.

Researchers say that 2014 MU69 is considered as one of the early building blocks of the solar system and as such will be invaluable to scientists studying the origin of our solar system how it evolved.

It was almost exactly one year ago on July 14, 2015 that New Horizons conducted Earth’s first ever up close flyby and science reconnaissance of Pluto – the most distant planet in our solar system and the last of the nine planets to be explored.

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The immense volume of data gathered continues to stream back to Earth every day.

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C.

“We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

While waiting for news on whether NASA would approve an extended mission, the New Horizons engineering and science team already ignited the main engine four times to carry out four course changes in October and November 2015, in order to preserve the option of the flyby past 2014 MU69 on Jan 1, 2019.

Green noted that mission extensions into fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are not final until Congress actually passes sufficient appropriation to fund NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

“Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.”

Tough choices were made even tougher because the Obama Administration has cut funding for the Planetary Sciences Division – some of which was restored by a bipartisan majority in Congress for what many consider NASA’s ‘crown jewels.’

NASA’s Dawn asteroid orbiter just completed its primary mission at dwarf planet Ceres on June 30, just in time for the global celebration known as Asteroid Day.

“The mission exceeded all expectations originally set for its exploration of protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres,” said NASA officials.

The Dawn science team had recently submitted a proposal to break out of orbit around the middle of this month in order to this conduct a flyby of the main belt asteroid Adeona.

Green declined to approve the Dawn proposal, citing additional valuable science to be gathered at Ceres.

The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.

The funding required for a multi-year mission to Adeona would be difficult in these cost constrained times.

However the spacecraft is in excellent shape and the trio of science instruments are in excellent health.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015 and has been conducting unprecedented investigation ever since.

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.

The mission is expected to last until at least later into 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.

Due to expert engineering and handling by the Dawn mission team, the probe unexpectedly has hydrazine maneuvering fuel leftover.

Dawn will remain at its current altitude at the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO) for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, even when no further communications are possible.

Green based his decision on the mission extensions on the biannual peer review scientific assessment by the Senior Review Panel.

Dawn was launched in September 2007.

The other mission extensions – contingent on available resources – are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Landslides and Bright Craters on Ceres Revealed in Marvelous New Images from Dawn

Ceres' Haulani Crater, with a diameter of 21 miles (34 kilometers), shows evidence of landslides from its crater rim.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Ceres’ Haulani Crater, with a diameter of 21 miles (34 kilometers), shows evidence of landslides from its crater rim. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Now in orbit for just over a year at dwarf planet Ceres, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft continues to astound us with new discoveries gleaned from spectral and imagery data captured at ever decreasing orbits as well as since the probe arrived last December at the lowest altitude it will ever reach during the mission.

Mission scientists have just released marvelous new images of Haulani and Oxo craters revealing landslides and mysterious slumps at several of the mysterious bright craters on Ceres – the largest asteroid in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The newly released image of oddly shaped Haulani crater above, shows the crater in enhanced color and reveals evidence of landslides emanating from its crater rim.

“Rays of bluish ejected material are prominent in this image. The color blue in such views has been associated with young features on Ceres,” according to the Dawn science team.

“Enhanced color allows scientists to gain insight into materials and how they relate to surface morphology.”

Look at the image closely and you’ll see its actually polygonal in nature – meaning it resembles a shape made of straight lines – unlike most craters in our solar system which are nearly circular.

”The straight edges of some Cerean craters, including Haulani, result from pre-existing stress patterns and faults beneath the surface,” says the science team.

Haulani Crater has a diameter of 21 miles (34 kilometers) and apparently was formed by an impacting object relatively recently in geologic time and is also one of the brightest areas on 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,” said Martin Hoffmann, co-investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, in a statement.

The enhanced color image was created from data gathered at Dawn’s High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO), while orbiting at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) from Ceres.

Data from Dawn’s VIR instrument shows that Haulani’s surface is comprised of different materials than its surroundings.

“False-color images of Haulani show that material excavated by an impact is different than the general surface composition of Ceres. The diversity of materials implies either that there is a mixed layer underneath, or that the impact itself changed the properties of the materials,” said Maria Cristina de Sanctis, the VIR instrument lead scientist, based at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Rome.

Since mid-December, Dawn has been orbiting Ceres in its Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO), at a distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres, resulting in the most stunning images ever of the dwarf planet.

By way of comparison the much higher resolution image of Haulani crater below, is a mosaic of views assembled from multiple images taken from LAMO at less than a third of the HAMO image distance – at only 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres.

Haulani Crater at LAMO. NASA's Dawn spacecraft took this mosaic view of Haulani Crater at a distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface of Ceres.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Haulani Crater at LAMO. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft took this mosaic view of Haulani Crater at a distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface of Ceres. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Dawn has also been busy imaging Oxo Crater, which despite its small size of merely 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) actually counts as a “hidden treasure” on Ceres – because it’s the second-brightest feature on Ceres!

Only the mysterious bright region comprising a multitude of spots inside Occator Crater shine more brightly on Ceres.

Most importantly, Oxo Crater is the only place on Ceres where Dawn has detected water at the surface so far. Via VIR, Dawn data indicate that the water exists either in the form of ice or hydrated minerals. Scientists speculate that the water was exposed either during a landslide or an impact.

“Little Oxo may be poised to make a big contribution to understanding the upper crust of Ceres,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The signatures of minerals detected on the floor of Oxo crater appears to be different from the rest of Ceres.

Furthermore Oxo is “also unique because of the relatively large “slump” in its crater rim, where a mass of material has dropped below the surface.”

Oxo Crater on Ceres is unique because of the relatively large "slump" in its crater rim.  The 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) Oxo crater is the second-brightest feature on Ceres.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Oxo Crater on Ceres is unique because of the relatively large “slump” in its crater rim. The 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) Oxo crater is the second-brightest feature on Ceres. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

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.

The mission is expected to last until at least later into 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.

Dawn will remain at its current altitude at LAMO for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, even when no further communications are possible.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Best NASA Images Yet Of Ceres’ Brightest Spot

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The bright central spots near the center of Occator Crater are shown in enhanced color in this view from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. The view was produced by combining the highest resolution images taken in February 2016 at an image scale of 115 feet (35 meters) per pixel with color images obtained in September 2015 at a lower resolution added. Click for a highest-res view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Ah, dome sweet dome. Scientists from NASA’s Dawn mission unveiled new images from the spacecraft’s lowest orbit at Ceres, including highly anticipated views of Occator Crater, at the 47th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, on Tuesday. The new images, taken from Dawn’s low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) of 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres, reveal a dome in a smooth-walled pit in the bright center of the crater. Linear fractures crisscross the top and flanks of the dome with still more fractures slicing across the nearby plains.

Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres. This photo has been exposed to show detail in the crater and landscape, so the bright spots are overexposed. The closeup photos on the other hand are correctly exposed to show detail in the spots but necessarily underexpose the landscape and make it look very dark. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

“Before Dawn began its intensive observations of Ceres last year, Occator Crater looked to be one large bright area. Now, with the latest close views, we can see complex features that provide new mysteries to investigate,” said Ralf Jaumann, planetary scientist and Dawn co-investigator at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin. “The intricate geometry of the crater interior suggests geologic activity in the recent past, but we will need to complete detailed geologic mapping of the crater in order to test hypotheses for its formation.”

The bright central spots near the center of Occator Crater are shown in enhanced color in this view from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. The view was produced by combining the highest resolution images taken in February 2016 (at image scales 115 feet (35 meters) per pixel of 35 meters with color images obtained in September 2015 at a lower resolution. Click for a highest-res view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Black and white view of the bright spots in Occator Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Like me, you’ve probably been anticipating LAMO for months, when we’d finally get our clearest view of the famous “bright spots”. Spectral observations have shown that the patches are consistent with a magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite that resembles the more familiar Epsom salts here on Earth. Scientists think these salt-rich areas were residue left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids could have broken into Ceres’ crust and possibly unearthed salt-rich ices. Exposed to the vacuum of space, the ice would have sublimated (vaporized), leaving the salt behind.

This global map shows the surface of Ceres in enhanced color, encompassing infrared wavelengths beyond human visual range. Images taken using infrared (965 nanometers), green (555 nanometers) and blue (438 nanometers) spectral filters were combined to create this view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
This global map shows the surface of Ceres in enhanced color, including infrared wavelengths beyond human visual range. Photos were taken using infrared, green and blue filters and combined to create this view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

The team also released an enhanced color map of the surface of Ceres that reveals a diversity of surface materials and how they relate to Ceres’ landforms. The dwarf planet doesn’t have as many large impact basins as scientists expected, but the number of smaller craters generally matches their predictions. The blue material highlighted in the color map is related to flows, smooth plains and mountains, which appear to be very young surface features.

“Although impact processes dominate the surface geology on Ceres, we have identified specific color variations on the surface indicating material alterations that are due to a complex interaction of the impact process and the subsurface composition,” Jaumann said. “Additionally, this gives evidence for a subsurface layer enriched in ice and volatiles.”

 This map shows a portion of the northern hemisphere of Ceres with neutron counting data acquired by the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These data reflect the concentration of hydrogen in the upper yard (or meter) of regolith, the loose surface material on Ceres. The color information is based on the number of neutrons detected per second by GRaND. Counts decrease with increasing hydrogen concentration. The color scale of the map is from blue (lowest neutron count) to red (highest neutron count). Lower neutron counts near the pole suggest the presence of water ice within about a yard (meter) of the surface at high latitudes.

This map shows part of Ceres’ northern hemisphere with neutron counting data from Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) instrument and reflect the concentration of hydrogen in the upper yard (or meter) of regolith, the loose surface material on Ceres. Colors are based on the number of neutrons detected per second by GRaND. Counts decrease with increasing hydrogen concentration. The color scale of the map is from blue (lowest neutron count) to red (highest neutron count). Lower neutron counts near the pole suggest the presence of water ice within about a yard (meter) of the surface at high latitudes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

We’re learning more about that subsurface ice thanks to Dawn’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND). Neutrons and gamma rays produced by cosmic rays interacting with the topmost yard (meter) of the loose rock and dust called regolith provide a fingerprint of Ceres’ chemical makeup. Lower counts indicate the presence of hydrogen, and since water’s rich in hydrogen (H2o), the results from GRanD suggest concentrations of water ice in the near-surface at high latitudes.

“Our analyses will test a longstanding prediction that water ice can survive just beneath Ceres’ cold, high-latitude surface for billions of years,” said Tom Prettyman, the lead for GRaND and Dawn co-investigator at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona.

Ceres’ Oxo Crater (right) is the only place on the dwarf planet where water has been detected on the surface so far. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Ceres’ Oxo Crater (right) is the only place on the dwarf planet where water has been detected on the surface so far. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Dawn scientists also reported that the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIR) has detected water at Oxo Crater, a young, 6-mile-wide (9-kilometer-wide) feature in Ceres’ northern hemisphere. This water could either be bound up in minerals or exist as ice and may have been exposed during a landslide or impact or a combination of the two events.  Oxo is the only place on Ceres where water has been detected at the surface so far.

Ceres' Haulani Crater (21 miles, 34 kilometers wide) is shown in these views from the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These views reveal variations in the region's brightness, mineralogy and temperature at infrared wavelengths. The image at far left shows brightness variations in Haulani. Light with a wavelength of 1200 nanometers is shown in blue, 1900 nanometers in green and 2300 nanometers in red. The view at center is a false color image, highlighting differences in the types of rock and ejected material around the crater. Scientists see this as evidence that the material in this area is not uniform, and that the crater's interior has a different composition than its surroundings.
Ceres’ Haulani Crater (21 miles, 34 kilometers wide) is shown in these views made with VIR. They reveal variations in the region’s brightness, mineralogy and temperature at infrared wavelengths in the types of rock and ejected material around the crater. Scientists see this as evidence that the material in this area is not uniform, and that the crater’s interior has a different composition than its surroundings. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Not only have scientists found evidence of possible extensive subsurface ice, but the composition of the surface is variable. Using VIR, which measures mineral composition by how those minerals reflect sunlight, they found that Haulani Crater shows a different proportion of surface materials than its surroundings. While the surface of Ceres is mostly made of a mixture of materials containing carbonates and phyllosilicates (clays), their relative proportion varies across the surface.

“False-color images of Haulani show that material excavated by an impact is different than the general surface composition of Ceres. The diversity of materials implies either that there is a mixed layer underneath, or that the impact itself changed the properties of the materials,” said Maria Cristina de Sanctis, the VIR instrument lead scientist.

All these cool stuff we’re finding out about this small body makes it nearly as exciting as Pluto. Taking a closer look is the best form of education.

The Bright Spots on Ceres are Blinking

All right, maybe not blinking like a flashlight (or a beacon on the tippity-top of a communication tower—don’t even start that speculation up) but the now-famous “bright spots” on the dwarf planet Ceres have been observed to detectably increase and decrease in brightness, if ever-so-slightly.

And what’s particularly interesting is that these observations were made not by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, currently in orbit around Ceres, but from a telescope right here on Earth.

Researchers using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument on ESO’s 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla detected “unexpected” changes in the brightness of Ceres during observations in July and August of 2015. Variations in line with Ceres’ 9-hour rotational period—specifically a Doppler effect in spectral wavelength created by the motion of the bright spots toward or away from Earth—were expected, but other fluctuations in brightness were also detected.

“The result was a surprise,” said Antonino Lanza from the INAF–Catania Astrophysical Observatory, co-author of the study. “We did find the expected changes to the spectrum from the rotation of Ceres, but with considerable other variations from night to night.”

Watch a video below illustrating the rotation of Ceres and how reflected light from the bright spots within Occator crater are alternately blue- and red-shifted according to the motion relative to Earth.

First observed with Hubble in December 2003, Ceres’ curious bright spots were resolved by Dawn’s cameras to be a cluster of separate regions clustered inside the 60-mile (90-km) -wide Occator crater. Based on Dawn data they are composed of some type of highly-reflective materials like salt and ice, although the exact composition or method of formation isn’t yet known.

Since they are made of such volatile materials though, interaction with solar radiation is likely the cause of the observed daily brightening. As the deposits heat up during the course of the 4.5-hour Ceres daytime they may create hazes and plumes of reflective particles.

“It has been noted that the spots appear bright at dawn on Ceres while they seem to fade by dusk,” noted study lead author Paolo Molaro in the team’s paper. “That could mean that sunlight plays an important role, for instance by heating up ice just beneath the surface and causing it to blast off some kind of plume or other feature.”

Once day turns to night these hazes will re-freeze, depositing the particles back down to the surface—although never in exactly the same way. These slight differences in evaporation and condensation could explain the random variation in daily brightening observed with HARPS.

These findings have been published the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (full text on arXiv here.)

Source: ESO

Flyover Video of Ceres Shows the Grandeur of Space Exploration

Wow. This video will knock your socks off … at least it did mine. This new flyover video of Ceres was created using enhanced images taken by the Dawn spacecraft’s framing camera. It was produced by the camera team at the German Aerospace Center, DLR, using images from Dawn’s high-altitude mapping orbit of 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) above Ceres’ surface. The video shows a stark and stunning world.

“The viewer can observe the sheer walls of the crater Occator, and also Dantu and Yalode, where the craters are a lot flatter,” said Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn mission scientist at DLR.

The enhanced color used here helps to highlight subtle differences in the appearance of surface materials. There’s additional info at the end of the video, but for a quick reference, area with shades of blue contain younger, fresher material such as flows, pits and cracks, while brown areas clays, which, enticingly, usually form in the presence of water.

I had the chance to visit with Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director at JPL earlier this month, when I interviewed him for a book I’m working on about robotic space exploration. One thing he really stressed is that Ceres is a big place, with diverse terrain and a variety of features. This video really brings that home.

“Ceres has a surface area of 2,770,000 square kilometers … It’s a big surface and we haven’t seen all of it,” Rayman said. “It will be great to see what the new detail shows from the low altitude orbit, because those pictures will be four times better resolution than pictures we were able to get at our previous orbit.”

Dawn is now in its final and lowest mapping orbit, at about 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface.

This animated flight over Ceres emphasizes the most prominent craters, such as Occator, Dantu, and the tall, conical mountain Ahuna Mons.

The bright features seen in Occator Crater have been determined to be salts, which are quite reflective and look bright to our eyes (sorry no alien city lights) and the team will be providing more details and images soon.

Occator Crater (57 miles, 92 kilometers) on Ceres, home of the brightest spots on the dwarf planet, in a simulated view using Dawn images. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
Occator Crater (57 miles, 92 kilometers) on Ceres, home of the brightest spots on the dwarf planet, in a simulated view using Dawn images. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Additional info: JPL, Dawn mission home page

Dawn Unveils New Bright Features on Ceres in Striking Close-Ups

This image from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows Kupalo Crater, one of the youngest craters on Ceres. The crater has bright material exposed on its rim and walls, which could be salts. Its flat floor likely formed from impact melt and debris.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows Kupalo Crater, one of the youngest craters on Ceres. The crater has bright material exposed on its rim and walls, which could be salts. Its flat floor likely formed from impact melt and debris. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has unveiled a new patch of intriguing bright features in the most recent series of striking close-up images taken just after the probe reached the lowest altitude it will ever reach during the mission.

From Dawn’s current altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres, every image taken from now on of the “unique landforms” will be of the highest resolution attainable since the ship will never swoop down closer to the pockmarked surface for science. Continue reading “Dawn Unveils New Bright Features on Ceres in Striking Close-Ups”

Dawn Spacecraft Unraveling Mysteries of Ceres Intriguing Bright Spots as Sublimating Salt Water Residues

This representation of Ceres' Occator Crater in false colors shows differences in the surface composition. Occator measures about 60 miles (90 kilometers) wide. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This representation of Ceres' Occator Crater in false colors shows differences in the surface composition. Occator measures about 60 miles (90 kilometers) wide. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This representation of Ceres’ Occator Crater in false colors shows differences in the surface composition. Red corresponds to a wavelength range around 0.97 micrometers (near infrared), green to a wavelength range around 0.75 micrometers (red, visible light) and blue to a wavelength range of around 0.44 micrometers (blue, visible light). Occator measures about 60 miles (90 kilometers) wide. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

With NASA’s Dawn spacecraft set to enter its final and lowest orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, spectral measurements are enabling researchers to gradually unravel the nature of the numerous mysterious and intriguing bright spots recently discovered, and now they conclude that briny mixtures of ice and salts apparently reside just beneath certain patches of the pockmarked surface and that “water is sublimating” from the surface of an “active crater”.

Indeed, excited scientists report that high resolution images and spectra from Dawn indicate that Ceres is an active world even today, according to a pair of newly published scientific papers in the journal Nature. Continue reading “Dawn Spacecraft Unraveling Mysteries of Ceres Intriguing Bright Spots as Sublimating Salt Water Residues”

Dawn Starts Steep Descent to Most Dazzling Orbit of Ceres

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).

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.

Dawn’s low altitude mapping orbit LAMO. This shows how the orbit naturally shifts slightly (relative to the sun) during the three months of LAMO, starting in blue and ending in red. The spacecraft completes each revolution in 5.5 hours, and Ceres rotates in 9.1 hours, so Dawn will be able to view the entire surface. Credit: NASA/JPL
Dawn’s low altitude mapping orbit LAMO. This shows how the orbit naturally shifts slightly (relative to the sun) during the three months of LAMO, starting in blue and ending in red. The spacecraft completes each revolution in 5.5 hours, and Ceres rotates in 9.1 hours, so Dawn will be able to view the entire surface. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

This image was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 km). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. See below for the wide view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 km). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. See below for the wide view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

This image, made using images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft during the mission's High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase, shows Occator crater on Ceres, home to a collection of intriguing bright spots.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This image, made using images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft during the mission’s High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase, shows Occator crater on Ceres, home to a collection of intriguing bright spots. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

This view from NASA's Dawn spacecraft is a color-coded topographic map of Occator crater on Ceres. Blue is the lowest elevation, and brown is the highest. The crater, which is home to the brightest spots on Ceres, is approximately 56 miles (90 kilometers wide).  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This view from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is a color-coded topographic map of Occator crater on Ceres. Blue is the lowest elevation, and brown is the highest. The crater, which is home to the brightest spots on Ceres, is approximately 56 miles (90 kilometers wide). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

This map-projected view of Ceres was created from images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft during its high-altitude mapping orbit, in August and September, 2015.  This color coded map can provide valuable insights into the mineral composition of the surface, as well as the relative ages of surface features.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This map-projected view of Ceres was created from images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft during its high-altitude mapping orbit, in August and September, 2015. This color coded map can provide valuable insights into the mineral composition of the surface, as well as the relative ages of surface features. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Ken Kremer

Dawn at Ceres
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft flying above Ceres. This view incorporates actual imagery from the Dawn mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA