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

Dawn Just Wants To Make All The Other Probes Look Bad

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Dawn spacecraft, NASA’s asteroid hopping probe, may not be going gently into that good night as planned. Dawn has visited Vesta and Ceres, and for now remains in orbit around Ceres. The Dawn mission was supposed to end after its rendezvous with Ceres, but now, reports say that the Dawn team has asked NASA to extend the mission to visit a third asteroid.

Dawn was launched in 2007, and in 2011 and 2012 spent 14 months at Vesta. After Vesta, it reached Ceres in March 2015, and is still in orbit there. The mission was supposed to end, but according to a report at New Scientist, the team would like to extend that mission.

Dawn is still is fully operational, and still has some xenon propellant remaining for its ion drive, so why not see what else can be achieved? There’s only a small amount of propellant left, so there’s only a limited selection of possible destinations for Dawn at this point. A journey to a far-flung destination is out of the question.

Chris Russell, of the University of California, Los Angeles, is the principal investigator for the Dawn mission. He told New Scientist, “As long as the mission extension has not been approved by NASA, I’m not going to tell you which asteroid we plan to visit,” he says. “I hope a decision won’t take months.”

If the Dawn mission is not extended, then its end won’t be very fitting for a mission that has accomplished so much. It will share the fate of some other spacecraft at the end of their lives; forever parked in a harmless orbit in an out of the way place, forgotten and left to its fate. The only other option is to crash it into a planet or other body to destroy it, like the Messenger spacecraft was crashed into Mercury at the end of its mission.

The crash and burn option isn’t available to Dawn though. The spacecraft hasn’t been sterilized. If it hasn’t been sterilized of all possible Earthly microbial life, then it is strictly forbidden to crash it into Ceres, or another body like it. Planetary protection rules are in place to avoid the possible contamination of other worlds with Earthly microbial life. It’s not likely that any microbes that may have hitched a ride aboard Dawn would have survived Dawn’s journey so far, nor is it likely that they would survive on the surface of Ceres, but rules are rules.

The secret of Dawn’s long-life and success is not only due to the excellent work by the teams responsible for the mission, it’s also due to Dawn’s ion-drive propulsion system. Ion drives, long dreamed of in science and science fiction, are making longer voyages into deep space possible.

Ion drives start very slow, but gain speed incrementally, continuing to generate thrust over long distances and long periods of time. They do all this with minimal propellant, and are ideal for long space voyages like Dawn’s.

The success of the Dawn mission is key to NASA’s plans for further deep space exploration. NASA continues to work on improving ion drives, and their latest project is the Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS.) This project is meant to further develop the Hall Thruster, a type of ion-drive that NASA hopes will extend spacecraft mission capabilities, allow longer and deeper space exploration, and benefit commercial space activities as well.

The AEPS has the potential to double the thrust of current ion-drives like the one on Dawn. It’s a key component of NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA also has plans for a robotic asteroid capture mission called Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will use the AEPS. That mission will visit an asteroid, retrieve a boulder- sized asteroid from the surface, and place it in orbit around the Moon. Eventually, astronauts will visit it and return samples to Earth for study. Very ambitious.

As far as the Dawn mission goes, it’s unclear what its next destination might be. Vesta and Ceres were chosen because they are thought be surviving protoplanets, formed at the same time as the other planets. But they stopped growing, and they remain largely undisturbed, so in that sense they are kind of locked in time, and are intriguing objects of study. There are other objects in the vicinity, but it would be pure guesswork to name any.

We are prone to looking at the past nostalgically, and thinking of prior decades as the golden age of space exploration. But as Dawn, and dozens of other current missions and scientific endeavours in space show us, we may well be in a golden age right now.

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.

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 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”

Ion Propulsion: The Key to Deep Space Exploration

The comforting blue glow of an ion drive. Image Credit: NASA

When we think of space travel, we tend to picture a massive rocket blasting off from Earth, with huge blast streams of fire and smoke coming out the bottom, as the enormous machine struggles to escape Earth’s gravity. Rockets are our only option for escaping Earth’s gravity well—for now. But once a spacecraft has broken its gravitational bond with Earth, we have other options for powering them. Ion propulsion, long dreamed of in science fiction, is now used to send probes and spacecraft on long journeys through space.

NASA first began researching ion propulsion in the 1950’s. In 1998, ion propulsion was successfully used as the main propulsion system on a spacecraft, powering the Deep Space 1 (DS1) on its mission to the asteroid 9969 Braille and Comet Borrelly. DS1 was designed not only to visit an asteroid and a comet, but to test twelve advanced, high-risk technologies, chief among them the ion propulsion system itself.

Ion propulsion systems generate a tiny amount of thrust. Hold nine quarters in your hand, feel Earth’s gravity pull on them, and you have an idea how little thrust they generate. They can’t be used for launching spacecraft from bodies with strong gravity. Their strength lies in continuing to generate thrust over time. This means that they can achieve very high top speeds. Ion thrusters can propel spacecraft to speeds over 320,000 kp/h (200,000 mph), but they must be in operation for a long time to achieve that speed.

An ion is an atom or a molecule that has either lost or gained an electron, and therefore has an electrical charge. So ionization is the process of giving a charge to an atom or a molecule, by adding or removing electrons. Once charged, an ion will want to move in relation to a magnetic field. That’s at the heart of ion drives. But certain atoms are better suited for this. NASA’s ion drives typically use xenon, an inert gas, because there’s no risk of explosion.

Detail of an ion drive. Image: NASA Glenn Research Center. Vectorization by Chabacano
Detail of an ion drive. Image: NASA Glenn Research Center. Vectorization by Chabacano

In an ion drive, the xenon isn’t a fuel. It isn’t combusted, and it has no inherent properties that make it useful as a fuel. The energy source for an ion drive has to come from somewhere else. This source can be electricity from solar cells, or electricity generated from decay heat from a nuclear material.

Ions are created by bombarding the xenon gas with high energy electrons. Once charged, these ions are drawn through a pair of electrostatic grids—called lenses—by their charges, and are expelled out of the chamber, producing thrust. This discharge is called the ion beam, and it is again injected with electrons, to neutralize its charge. Here’s a short video showing how ion drives work:

 

Unlike a traditional chemical rocket, where its thrust is limited by how much fuel it can carry and burn, the thrust generated by an ion drive is only limited by the strength of its electrical source. The amount of propellant a craft can carry, in this case xenon, is a secondary concern. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft used only 10 ounces of xenon propellant—that’s less than a soda can—for 27 hours of operation.

NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster. Image Credit: NASA
NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster. Image Credit: NASA

In theory, there is no limit to the strength of the electrical source powering the drive, and work is being done to develop even more powerful ion thrusters than we currently have. In 2012, NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) operated at 7000w for over 43,000 hours, in comparison to the ion drive on DS1 that used only 2100w. NEXT, and designs that will surpass it in the future, will allow spacecraft to go on extended missions to multiple asteroids, comets, the outer planets, and their moons.

Missions using ion propulsion include NASA’s Dawn mission, the Japanese Hayabusa mission to asteroid 25143 Itokawa, and the upcoming ESA missions Bepicolombo, which will head to Mercury in 2017, and LISA Pathfinder, which will study low frequency gravitational waves.

With the constant improvement in ion propulsion systems, this list will only grow.