Scientists Tantalized as Dawn Yields Global Mineral and Topographic Maps of Ceres

Slowly but surely the mysteries of dwarf planet Ceres are being peeled back layer by layer as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbits lower and lower and gathers detailed measurements that have now yielded global mineral and topographic maps, tantalizing researchers with the best resolution ever.

The Dawn science team has been painstakingly stitching together the spectral and imaging products captured from the lowest orbit yet achieved into high resolution global maps of Ceres, released today Sept. 30, by NASA.

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

The color coded map above is providing researchers with valuable insights into the mineral composition of Ceres surface, as well as the relative ages of the surface features that were a near total mystery until Dawn arrived on March 6, 2015.

The false-color mineral map view combines images taken using infrared (920 nanometers), red (750 nanometers) and blue (440 nanometers) spectral filters.

“Redder colors indicate places on Ceres’ surface that reflect light strongly in the infrared, while bluish colors indicate enhanced reflectivity at short (bluer) wavelengths; green indicates places where albedo, or overall brightness, is strongly enhanced,” say officials.

“Scientists use this technique in order to highlight subtle color differences across Ceres, which would appear fairly uniform in natural color. This can provide valuable insights into the mineral composition of the surface, as well as the relative ages of surface features.”

Researchers say the mineral variations at Ceres “are more subtle than on Vesta, Dawn’s previous port of call.”

The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target and conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.

The Dawn team is meeting this week to review and publish the mission results so far at the European Planetary Science Conference in Nantes, France.

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.

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 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

The newly released maps were created from data gathered at Dawn’s current science orbit, known as the High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase of the mission, during August and September.

At HAMO, Dawn is circling Ceres at an altitude of barely 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) above the heavily cratered surface.

“Dawn arrived in this third mapping orbit [HAMO] on Aug. 13. It began this third mapping phase on schedule on Aug. 17,” Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, told Universe Today.

Each HAMO mapping orbit cycle lasts 11 days and consists of 14 orbits lasting 19 hours each. Ceres is entirely mapped during each of the 6 cycles. The third mapping cycle started on Sept. 9.

Dawn’ instruments, including the Framing Camera and Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (VIR) will be 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 told me.

“We are hoping to get lots of VIR IR data to help understand the composition of the surface better.”

“Dawn will use the color filters in its framing camera to record the sights in visible and infrared wavelengths,” notes Rayman.

The new maps at HAMO provide about three times better resolution than the images captured from its previous orbit in June, and nearly 10 times better than in the spacecraft’s initial orbit at Ceres in April and May.

This color-coded map from NASA's Dawn shows the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres. It is labeled with names of features approved by the International Astronomical Union. The color scale extends about 5 miles (7.5 kilometers) below the reference surface in indigo to 5 miles (7.5 kilometers) above the reference surface in white.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This color-coded map from NASA’s Dawn shows the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres. It is labeled with names of features approved by the International Astronomical Union. The color scale extends about 5 miles (7.5 kilometers) below the reference surface in indigo to 5 miles (7.5 kilometers) above the reference surface in white. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The science team also released a new color-coded topographic map annotated with over a dozen Cerean feature names recently approved by the IAU.

“The names for features on Ceres are all eponymous for agricultural spirits, deities and festivals from cultures around the world. These include Jaja, after the Abkhazian harvest goddess, and Ernutet, after the cobra-headed Egyptian harvest goddess. A 12-mile (20-kilometer) diameter mountain near Ceres’ north pole is now called Ysolo Mons, for an Albanian festival that marks the first day of the eggplant harvest.”

The biggest Cerean mystery of all remains the nature of the bright spots at Occator crater. It’s still under analysis and the team released a new color coded topographic map.

The imagery and other science data may point to evaporation of salty water as the source of the bright spots.

“Occasional water leakage on to the surface could leave salt there as the water would sublime,” Russell told me.

“The big picture that is emerging is that Ceres fills a unique niche,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator told Universe Today exclusively.

“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,” said Russell.

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

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

Dawn was launched 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.

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

Ken Kremer

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

10 Years of Haumea

Remember the neat tidy solar system of the 20th century? As a child of the 1970s, we remember orderly planets, with circular orbits punctuated by the occasional asteroid or comet. They say ignorance is bliss, and the modern astronomical age of discovery in the 21st century has since revealed a cosmic terra incognita in our solar backyard.

We’re talking about the 99% of the solar system by volume out beyond the orbit Neptune, occupied by Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO), Plutinos (the object, not the drink), Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) and more.

136108 Haumea — one of the strangest worlds of them all — was introduced into the solar system menagerie about ten years ago. Discovered by Mike Brown (@Plutokiller extraordinaire) and team in late December 2004 from the Palomar Observatory, Haumea (say HOW-meh) received its formal name on September 17, 2008 along with its dwarf planet designation. Remember, astronomers discovered Haumea — like Xena turned Eris — before the series of decisions by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 which led to the Pluto is a planet/is a dwarf planet/ is a Plutoid roller coaster ride.

Image credit: JPL
The orbit of 136108 Haumea. Image credit: NASA/JPL

You’ve come a long way, little ice world, as New Horizons has finally given us a view of Pluto and friends just this past summer. Thankfully, most of us weren’t on Twitter yet back in 2006…  heck, you can even read the original article by Universe Today  from around the time of Eris and Haumea’s discovery (really: we’ve been around that long!)

It wasn’t long before Brown and team realized they had a strange discovery on their hands, as well as a lingering controversy. First, a team from the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain attempted to scoop the Palomar team concerning the discovery. It was later learned that the Sierra Nevada team was accessing the Caltech logs remotely, and looking at where the telescopes were hunting in the sky, and at what times. Though the Spanish team later conceded accessing the observation logs, they maintained that they were double-checking earlier observations of the subject object from 2003. Wherever you stand on the discovery hullabaloo, Mike Brown goes into depth on the modern astronomical controversy in his book How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming.

Image credit: ESA
Haumea (the ‘egg’ to the lower left) versus ESA Herschel’s population of Trans-Neptunian Objects Image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE

Haumea initially earned the nickname ‘Santa Claus’ due to its discovery near the Christmas holiday. Haumea derives its formal name from the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth. Likewise, the reindeer inspired moons Rudolph and Blitzen were later named Hi’aka and Namaka after daughters of Haumea in the Hawaiian pantheon.   Brown at team discovered both moons shortly after Haumea itself.

A Bizarre World

Methone_PIA14633
Saturn’s moon Methone… a possible ‘mini-twin’ of Haumea? Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Bizzaro homeworld of Superman mythos has nothing on Haumea. OK, maybe it’s not a perfect cube — remember, nothing’s perfect on the Bizzaro planet either — but it does have a decidedly oblate egg shape.   Haumea is a fast rotator, with a ‘day’ equal to about four hours. We know this due to periodic changes in brightness. Haumea also has a high albedo of about 80%, similar to freshly fallen snow.

Models suggest that Haumea is about twice as long as it is wide, with dimensions of 2,000 kilometres along its long axis, versus 1,000 kilometres through its poles. The presence of two tiny moons allows us to estimate its mass at about 33% of Pluto, and 6% that of Earth’s Moon. With such a fast rotation, Haumea must just be barely maintaining hydrostatic equilibrium, though it’s stretching the world to its max.

Image credit:
Haumea and friends: orbital inclinations of TNO/KBO families vs AU distance. Image credit: Wikimedia/Eurocommuter

Evidence of an ancient collision, perhaps? It would be fascinating to see Haumea up close. Like Pluto, however, it’s distant, with an aphelion near 51.5 AU and a perihelion near 35 AU. Orbiting the Sun once every 284 years, Haumea just passed aphelion in 1992 about a decade prior to discovery, and perhaps the time to send a New Horizons-type mission past it would be near perihelion in 2134.  Interestingly, Haumea is also in a near 7:12 resonance with Neptune, meaning it completes 7 orbits around the Sun to Neptune’s 12.

Image credit: Starry Night Education Software
The outer solar system view from Haumea. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software

A Swift Sky

Astronomy from Haumea is literally dizzying to contemplate.  First, prepare yourself for that four hour day: you would easily see the rotation of the sky — to the tune of an object rising and reaching the zenith in just an hour — moving in real time. Then there’s the two moons Namaka and Hi’iaka, in 18 and 50 day orbits, respectively… both would show discernible discs and phases courtesy of the Sun, which would currently present a  38” disk shining at magnitude -18 (still about 100 times brighter than a Full Moon). Looking for Earth? It’s an easy catch at magnitude +4.8 but never strays more than 1 degree from the Sun, twice the diameter of a Full Moon.

Image credit: Starry Night Education Software
An inner solar system view from Haumea. the green circle is twice the size of a Full Moon. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software

Haumea currently shines at magnitude +17 in the constellation Boötes. Theoretically, it’s within the grab of a large amateur telescope, though to our knowledge, no backyard observer has ever manage to nab it… perhaps this will change over the next century or so towards perihelion?

Scratch that… we’ve since learned that Mike Weasner did indeed nab Haumea in 2013 from his backyard Cassiopeia observatory near Oracle, Arizona:

Image credit:
A capture of Haumea… with an 8″ telescope! The brilliant star in the frame is magnitude +2.7 Eta Boötis (Murphid). Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory

Awesome!

The discovery of Haumea and friends is a fascinating tale of modern astronomy, and shows us just how strange the brave new worlds of the outer solar system are. Perhaps one day, human eyes will gaze at the bizarre skies of Haumea… though keeping a telescope tracking might be a true challenge!

 

 

 

Do Ceres Bizarre Bright Spots Seen in Dazzling New Close Ups Arise from ‘Water Leakage’? Dawn Science Team Talks to UT

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
Story/imagery updated[/caption]

The question on everyone’s mind about Ceres is what the heck are those bizarre bright spots discovered by NASA’s Dawn orbiter?

Since scientists believe that Ceres occupies a “unique niche” in the solar system and apparently harbors subsurface ice or liquid oceans, could the bright spots arise from subsurface “water leakage?” To find out Universe Today asked Dawn’s Principal Investigator and Chief Engineer.

“The big picture that is emerging is that Ceres fills a unique niche,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator told Universe Today exclusively.

“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,” said Russell, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

And with Dawn recently arrived at its second lowest science mapping orbit of the planned mission around icy dwarf planet Ceres in mid-August, the NASA spacecraft is capturing the most stunningly detailed images yet of those ever intriguing bright spots located inside Occator crater.

The imagery and other science data may point to evaporation of salty water as the source of the bright spots.

“Occasional water leakage on to the surface could leave salt there as the water would sublime,” Russell told me.

Circling the Lights of Occator crater on Ceres.  This image, made using images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft during the mission's High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase  and draped over a shape model, shows Occator crater on Ceres, home to a collection of intriguing bright spots.  The image  has been stretched by 1.5 times in the vertical direction to better illustrate the crater's topography.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Circling the Lights of Occator crater on Ceres. This image, made using images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft during the mission’s High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase and draped over a shape model, shows Occator crater on Ceres, home to a collection of intriguing bright spots. The image has been stretched by 1.5 times in the vertical direction to better illustrate the crater’s topography. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn is Earth’s first probe to explore any dwarf planet and the first to explore Ceres up close. It was built by Orbital ATK.

To shed more light on what still remains rather mysterious even today, NASA has just released the best yet imagery, which was taken at Dawn’s High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase and they raise as many questions as they answer.

Occator has captured popular fascination world-wide because the 60 miles (90 kilometers) diameter crater is rife with the alien bodies brightest spots and whose nature remains elusive to this day, over half a year after Dawn arrived in orbit this past spring on March 6, 2015.

The new imagery from Dawn’s current HAMO mapping orbit was taken at an altitude of just 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). They provide about three times better resolution than the images captured from its previous orbit in June, and nearly 10 times better than in the spacecraft’s initial orbit at Ceres in April and May, says the team.

So with the new HAMO orbit images in hand, I asked the team what’s the latest thinking on the bright spots nature?

Initially a lot of speculation focused on water ice. But the scientists opinions have changed substantially as the data pours in from the lower orbits and forced new thinking on alternative hypotheses – to the absolute delight of the entire team!

“When the spots appeared at first to have an albedo approaching 100%, we were forced to think about the possibility of [water] ice being on the surface,” Russell explained.

“However the survey data revealed that the bright spots were only reflecting about 50% of the incoming light.”

“We did not like the ice hypothesis because ice sublimes under the conditions on Ceres surface. So we were quite relieved by the lower albedo.”

“So what could be 50% reflective? If we look at Earth we find that when water evaporates on the desert it leaves salt which is reflective. We know from its density that water or ice is inside Ceres.”

“So the occasional water leakage on to the surface could leave salt there as the water would sublime even faster than ice.”

At this time no one knows how deep the potential ice deposit or water reservoir sources of the “water leakage” reside beneath the surface, or whether the bright salt spots arose from past or current activity and perhaps get replenished or enlarged over time. To date there is no evidence showing plumes currently erupting from the Cerean surface.

Video Caption: Circling Occator Crater on Ceres. This animation, made using data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows the topography of Occator crater on Ceres. Credits: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Dawn is an international science mission and equipped with a trio of state of the art science instruments from Germany, Italy and the US. They will elucidate the overall elemental and chemical composition and nature of Ceres, its bright spots and other wondrous geological features like the pyramidal mountain object.

I asked the PI and Chief Engineer to explain specifically how and which of the instruments is the team using right now at HAMO to determine the bright spots composition?

“The instruments that will reveal the composition of the spots are the framing camera [from Germany], the infrared spectrometer, and the visible spectrometer [both from the VIR instrument from Italy], replied Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“Dawn arrived in this third mapping orbit [HAMO] on Aug. 13. It began this third mapping phase on schedule on Aug. 17.”

But much work remains to gather and interpret the data and discern the identity of which salts are actually present on Ceres.

“While salts of various sorts have the right reflectance, they are hard to distinguish from one another in the visible,” Russell elaborated to Universe Today.

“That is one reason VIR is working extra hard on the IR spectrum. Scientists are beginning to speculate on the salts. And to think about what salts could be formed in the interior.”

“That is at an early stage right now,” Russell stated.

“I know of nothing exactly like these spots anywhere. We are excited about these scientific surprises!”

Occator crater lies in Ceres northern hemisphere.

“There are other lines of investigation besides direct compositional measurement that will provide insight into the spots, including the geological context,” Rayman told Universe Today.

Each of Dawn’s two framing cameras is also outfitted with a wheel of 7 color filters, explained Joe Makowski, Dawn program manager from Orbital ATK, in an interview.

Different spectral data is gathered using the different filters which can be varied during each orbit.

“So far Dawn has completed 2 mapping orbit cycles of the 6 cycles planned at HAMO.”

Each HAMO mapping orbit cycle lasts 11 days and consists of 14 orbits lasting 19 hours each. Ceres is entirely mapped during each of the 6 cycles. The third mapping cycle just started on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

The instruments will be aimed at slightly different angle 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.

“We are hoping to get lots of VIR IR data to help understand the composition of the surface better.”

“Dawn will use the color filters in its framing camera to record the sights in visible and infrared wavelengths,” notes Rayman.

“Dawn remains at HAMO until October 23. Then it begins thrusting with the ion propulsion thrusters to reach its lowest mapping orbit named LAMO [Low Altitude Mapping Orbit],” Makowski told me.

“Dawn will arrive at LAMO on December 15, 2015.”

That’s a Christmas present we can all look forward to with glee!

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 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. Image 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 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

What is the teams reaction, interplay and interpretation regarding the mountains of new data being received from Dawn? How do the geologic processes compare to Earth?

“Dawn has transformed what was so recently a few bright dots into a complex and beautiful, gleaming landscape,” says Rayman. “Soon, the scientific analysis will reveal the geological and chemical nature of this mysterious and mesmerizing extraterrestrial scenery.”

“We do believe we see geologic processes analogous to those on Earth – but with important Cerean twists,” Russell told me.

“However we are at a point in the mission where conservative scientists are interpreting what we see in terms of familiar processes. And the free thinkers are imagining wild scenarios for what they see.”

“The next few weeks (months?) will be a time where the team argues amongst themselves and finds the proper compromise between tradition and innovation,” Russell concluded elegantly.

Among the highest features seen on Ceres so far is a mountain about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, which is roughly the elevation of Mount McKinley in Alaska's Denali National Park.  Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five to help understand the topography. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI
Among the highest features seen on Ceres so far is a mountain about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, which is roughly the elevation of Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five to help understand the topography. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI

A batch of new results from Dawn at Ceres are expected to be released during science presentations at the European Planetary Science Congress 2015 being held in Nantes, France from 27 September to 2 October 2015.

The Dawn 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,” Rayman told me.

The science objectives in the LAMO orbit could be achieved as soon as March. But the team wants to extend operations as long as possible, perhaps to June or beyond, if the spacecraft remains healthy and has sufficient hydrazine maneuvering fuel and NASA funding to operate.

“We expect Dawn to complete the mission objectives at Ceres by March 2016. June is a the programmatic milestone for end of the nominal mission, effectively a time margin,” Makowski told Universe Today.

“The team is working to a well-defined exploration plan for Ceres, which we expect to accomplish by March, if all goes well.”

“At launch Dawn started with 45 kg of hydrazine. It has about 21 kg of usable hydrazine onboard as of today.”

“We expect to use about 15 kg during the nominal remaining mission,” Makowski stated.

Therefore Dawn may have roughly 5 kg or so of hydrazine fuel for any extended mission, if all goes well, that may eventually be approved by NASA. Of course NASA’s budget depends also on what is approved by the US Congress.

The intriguing brightest spots on Ceres lie in a crater named Occator, which is about 60 miles (90 kilometers) across and 2 miles (4 kilometers) deep.  Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five. Exaggerating the relief helps scientists understand and visualize the topography much more easily, and highlights features that are sometimes subtle.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI
The intriguing brightest spots on Ceres lie in a crater named Occator, which is about 60 miles (90 kilometers) across and 2 miles (4 kilometers) deep. Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five. Exaggerating the relief helps scientists understand and visualize the topography much more easily, and highlights features that are sometimes subtle. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI

Dawn was launched 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.

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

Ken Kremer

Dawn launch on September 27, 2007 by a United Launch Alliance Delta II Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Dawn launch on September 27, 2007 by a United Launch Alliance Delta II Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Dwarf Planet Quaoar

The vast Kuiper Belt, which orbits at the outer edge of our Solar System, has been the site of many exciting discoveries in the past decade or so. Otherwise known as the Trans-Neptunian region, small bodies have been discovered here that have confounded our notions of what constitutes a planet and thrown our entire classification system for a loop. Of these, the most famous (and controversial) discovery was undoubtedly Eris.

First observed in 2005 by Mike Brown and his team, the discovery of Eris overturned decades of astronomical conventions. But both before and since then, many other “dwarf planets“, “plutoids” and “Trans-Neptunian Objects” (TNOs) have been found that further illustrated the need for reclassification. This includes the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 5000 Quaoar (or just Quaoar), which was actually discovered three years before Eris.

Discovery and Naming:

Quaoar was discovered on June 4th, 2002 by astronomers Chad Trujillo and Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, using images that were obtained with the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory. The discovery was announced on October 7th, 2002, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. At the time, the object was designated as 2002 LM60, but would soon be renamed by Brown and Caltech his team.

Consistent with the IAU conventions for naming non-resonant Kuiper Belt Objects after creator deities, the object was given the name Quaoar after the Tongva creator god. The Tongva people (otherwise known as the Mission Indians) are native to the area around Los Angeles, where the discovery of Quaoar was made.

Images of Quaoar taken by the Oschin Telescope at Palomar, California, USA. Credit: Chad Trujillo & Michael Brown (Caltech)
Images of Quaoar taken using the Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory, California. Credit: Chad Trujillo & Michael Brown (Caltech)

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Given its distance, accurate measurements of Quaoar have been difficult to obtain. In 2004, Brown and Trujillo made direct measurements of the object with the Hubble Space Telescope and came up with an estimated diameter of  1260 ± 190 km.

However, these estimates were subsequently revised downward in 2013 by teams using a stellar occultation, and with data obtained with the Herschel Observatory’s PACS instrument and the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Combining this information, estimates of its diameter were then changed to between 1110 ± 5 km and 1074±38 km. By these estimates, Quaoar was the largest object to be discovered in the Solar System since the discovery of Pluto. However, it would later be supplanted by the discoveries of Eris, Haumea, and Makemake.

In addition, new techniques and a greater knowledge of KBOs led scientists to conclude that the 2004 HST size estimate for Quaoar was approximately 40% too large, and that a more proper estimate would be about 900 km. Using a weighted average of the SST and corrected HST estimates, Quaoar, as of 2010, is now believed to be about 890±70 km in diameter.

Given these dimensions, Quaoar is roughly one-twelfth the diameter of Earth, one third the diameter of the Moon, and half the size of Pluto. And with an estimated mass of 1.4 ± 0.1 × 1021 kg, Quaoar is about as massive as Pluto’s moon Charon, equivalent to 0.12 times the mass of Eris, and approximately 2.5 times as massive as Orcus. 

Quaoar orbit around the Sun varies slightly, ranging from 45.114 AU (6.75 x 109 km / 4.19 x 109 mi) at aphelion to 41.695 AU (6.24 x 10 km9/3.88 x 109 mi) at perihelion. Quaoar has an orbital period of 284.5 years, and a sidereal rotation period of about 17.68 hours.

Its orbit is also nearly circular and moderately inclined at approximately 8°, which is typical for the population of small classical KBOs, but exceptional among the large KBO. Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, Orcus, Varuna, and Salacia are all on highly inclined, more eccentric orbits.

At 43 AU and with a near-circular orbit, Quaoar is not significantly perturbed by Neptune; unlike Pluto, which is in 2:3 orbital resonance with Neptune. As of 2008, Quaoar was only 14 AU from Pluto, which made it the closest large body to the Pluto–Charon system. By Kuiper Belt standards this is very close.

The orbit of Quaoar (yellow) and various other cubewanos compared to the orbit of Neptune (blue) and Pluto (pink)
The orbit of Quaoar (yellow) and various other cubewanos compared to the orbit of Neptune (blue) and Pluto (pink). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kheider

Composition:

At the time of its discovery, not much was known about Kuiper belt objects. However, subsequent findings about this region have led scientists to conclude that the surface of Quaoar is likely to be highly similar to those of the icy satellites of Uranus and Neptune. This includes a low albedo, which could be as low as 0.1, which may be an indication that fresh ice has disappeared from its surface.

The surface is also moderately red, meaning that Quaoar is relatively more reflective in the red and near-infrared than in the blue. A 2006 model of internal heating via radioactive decay suggested that, unlike Orcus, Quaoar may not be capable of sustaining an internal ocean of liquid water at the mantle-core boundary.

Observations of Quaoar in the near infrared spectrum have indicated the presence of a small quantities of methane and ethane ice (about 5%). Scientists have also been surprised to find signs of crystalline ice on Quaoar, which is caused by sublimation and refreezing of water. This would indicate that the temperature rose to at least -160 °C (110 K or -260 °F) sometime in the last ten million years.

Artist's impression of the size difference between Quaoar Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the size difference between Quaoar, Pluto, Sedna, Earth and the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Speculation as to what could have caused Quaoar to heat up from its natural temperature of -220 °C (55 K or -360 °F) have led to theories ranging from a barrage of mini-meteors that could have raised the temperature, to the presence of cryovolcanism. The latter theory, which is the more widely accepted one, holds that cryovolcanism occurred as a result of the decay of radioactive elements within Quaoar’s core.

Some scientist believe that Quaoar was nearly twice its current size before an ancient collision with another object, possibly Pluto, stripped it of its outer mantle. If true, it would mean that Quaoar once had more ice on its surface, and possibly a liquid water ocean at the core-mantle boundary.

Moon:

Quaoar has one known satellite, which was discovered on February 22nd, 2007. It orbits its primary at a distance of 14,500 km and has an orbital eccentricity of 0.14. Based on the assumption that the moon has the same albedo and density as Quaoar, the apparent magnitude of the moon indicates that it is 74 km in diameter and has 1/2000 the mass of Quaoar.

In terms of where it came from, Brown has suggested that it may be a remnant from a collision, which lost most of its mantle ice in the process. The choice for naming the moon was deferred to the Tongva people themselves, who selected the sky god Weymot, who is the son of Quaoar in Tongva mythology. The name became official on October 4th, 2009, with the publication of the Minor Planet Center’s latest issue.

Artist’s impression of the moderately red Quaoar and its moon Weywot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)
Artist’s impression of the moderately red Quaoar and its moon Weywot.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)

Classification:

According to the IAU, a dwarf planet is any celestial body that orbits a star, is massive enough to have become spherical under the power of its own gravity, but has not cleared its path of planetesimals, and is not the satellite of another object. Also, it must have enough mass to overcome its own compression and be in hydrostatic equilibrium.

Because Quaoar is a binary object, the mass of the system can be calculated from the orbit of the secondary. From this, Quaoar’s estimated density of 2.2 g/cm³ and its estimated diameter of 820 – 960 km suggest that it is large enough to be a dwarf planet.

This is based in part on estimates made by Mike Brown, who has claimed that rocky bodies around 900 km in diameter are sufficient to relax into hydrostatic equilibrium, whereas icy bodies can reach this state with diameters somewhere between 200 and 400 km.

In addition, Quaoar’s mass (which is believed to be greater than 1.6×1021 kg) is also greater than what the 2006 IAU draft definition of a planet claims is “usually” required for being in hydrostatic equilibrium (5×1020 kg, 800 km). Light-curve-amplitude analysis shows only small deviations, suggesting that Quaoar is indeed a spheroid with small albedo spots.

Therefore, while it is not currently classified as a dwarf planet, it is considered a viable candidate. In the coming years, it may go on to join the ranks of Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake as being officially recognized as such by the IAU and other astronomical bodies.

Exploration:

So far, no missions have been planned to Quaoar. While some have advocated sending the New Horizons mission to visit Quaoar and/or Sedna now that it’s flyby of Pluto is complete, NASA has declared this to be impossible. Much like Sedna, Quaoar is too far from the trajectory of the spacecraft, but also insists that both KBOs will be high on the list of candidate targets for future missions to the outer Solar System.

It has further been calculated that a flyby mission to Quaoar could take 13.57 years, using a Jupiter gravity assist and based on the launch dates of December 25th, 2016, November 22nd, 2027, December 22nd, 2028, January 22nd, 2030, or December 20thm, 2040. During any of these launch windows, Quaoar would be at a distance of 41 to 43 AU from the Sun by the time the spacecraft arrived.

In the meantime, all we can do is wait, and continue to observe Quaoar and its fellow Kuiper Belt Objects from afar. In the coming years, a decision is also likely to be made about whether or not it will be included on the list of the Solar System’s acknowledge dwarf planets.

We have written many articles about Quaoar for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the discovery of Quaoar, and here’s an article about the Kuiper Belt.

If you’d like more info about Dwarf Planets, check out Solar System Exploration Guide on Dwarf Planets, and here’s a link to an article aboutthe dwarf planet, Ceres.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast entitled Episode 194: Dwarf Planets and an interview with Mike Brown himself!

Sources:

Ceres’ “Pyramid” Gets a Closer Look, But Bright Spots Remain a Mystery

The Dawn spacecraft is now orbiting just 1,470 kilometers (915 miles) above Ceres’ surface, and the science team released these latest images. Above is a closest view yet of the so-called ‘pyramid’ on Ceres, although the closer Dawn gets, the less this feature looks like a pyramid. It’s actually more like a conical mountain with a flat top, almost like a butte.

And if you’re like me and you see a crater instead of a mountain, just turn the picture over (or stand on your head). Below, we’ve turned the image upside down for you:

An upside down look at the conical mountain on Ceres (in case you have trouble seeing it as a mountain!). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
An upside down look at the conical mountain on Ceres (in case you have trouble seeing it as a mountain!). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The mountain is located in the southern hemisphere, and stands 6 kilometers (4 miles) high. Visible on the sides of the mountain are narrow braided fractures and an intriguing bright area. Only time will tell if this bright region is similar to the mysterious bright spots seen in previous Dawn images of Ceres. The team released additional images as well.

This image, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, shows high southern latitudes on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). Zadeni crater, measuring about 80 miles (130 kilometers) across, is on the right side of the image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This image, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows high southern latitudes on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). Zadeni crater, measuring about 80 miles (130 kilometers) across, is on the right side of the image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

As Dawn slowly moves ever-closer to Ceres surface, the team says the spacecraft is performing well.

“Dawn is performing flawlessly in this new orbit as it conducts its ambitious exploration. The spacecraft’s view is now three times as sharp as in its previous mapping orbit, revealing exciting new details of this intriguing dwarf planet,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,

Dawn is currently taking images to try and map the entire surface. This will 11 days at this altitude and each 11-day cycle consists of 14 orbits. Over the next two months, the spacecraft will map the entirety of Ceres six times.

This image, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, shows high southern latitudes on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). Zadeni crater, measuring about 80 miles (130 kilometers) across, is on the right side of the image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This image, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows high southern latitudes on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). Zadeni crater, measuring about 80 miles (130 kilometers) across, is on the right side of the image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Using Dawn’s framing camera to map the surface in detail, scientists hope to create a 3-D modeling of Ceres’ surface. Every image from this orbit has a resolution of 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel, and covers less than 1 percent of the surface of Ceres.

At the same time, Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer is collecting data that will give scientists a better understanding of the minerals found on Ceres’ surface.

The science and engineering teams are also taking a look at the data coming in from radio signals to help with measurements of Ceres’ gravity field. This will help determine the distribution of mass on Ceres interior and might provide clues if the asteroid has any liquid water beneath its surface.

Additionally, the radio data data will help mission planners design the maneuvers for lowering Dawn’s orbit even more. In late October, Dawn will begin spiraling toward this final orbit, which will be at an altitude of 375 kilometers (230 miles.)

In the latest entry on the Dawn Journal, Rayman said despite the loss of the reaction wheels (in 2010 and 2012) that help maneuver the spacecraft and keep it stable, engineers have learned how to be very efficient with the precious hydrazine the fuels the small jets of the reaction control system and they now have some to spare. They now expect to exceed the original mission parameters!

“Therefore, mission planners have recently decided to spend a few more in this mapping orbit,” Rayman said. “They have added extra turns to allow the robot to communicate with Earth during more of the transits over the nightside than they had previously budgeted. This means Dawn can send the contents of its computer memory to Earth more often and therefore have space to collect and store even more data than originally planned. An 11-day mapping cycle is going to be marvelously productive.”

There’s still a debate about the unusually bright spots in some of Ceres craters that appear when the asteroid/dwarf planet turns into the sunlight. The team has speculated that they could be frozen pools of water ice, or patches of light-colored, salt-rich material.

The brightest spots are known collectively as Spot 5, and sit inside Occator Crater on Ceres, and hopefully new images of this area will be released soon. In a previous article on Universe Today, Dawn’s principal investigator, Chris Russell of the University of California at Los Angeles told us that the debate is continuing among the science team, but he wouldn’t harbor a guess as to which way the debate might end or which “side” was in the lead among the scientists.

“I originally was an advocate of ice, because of how bright the spots seemed to be,” Russell told writer Alan Boyle, but newer observations revealed the bright material’s albedo, or reflectivity factor, is about 50 percent – which is less than Russell originally thought. “This could be salt and is unlikely to be ice. I think the team opinion is now more in line with salt,” he said.

You can cast your vote as to what you think the bright spots are at this NASA page.

See all the latest images from Dawn at JPL’s Photojournal page.

Mysterious Bright Spots and Pyramidal Mountain Star in Dawn’s Daunting Flyover of Ceres: Video

Video caption: Take a tour of weird Ceres! Visit a 2-mile-deep crater and a 4-mile-tall mountain in the video narrated by mission director Marc Rayman. Get your red/blue glasses ready for the finale – a global view of the dwarf planet in 3D. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI/PSI

Mysterious bright spots and a pyramidal shaped mountain star in a daunting new flyover video of dwarf planet Ceres created from imagery gathered by NASA’s history making Dawn mission – the first ever to visit any dwarf planet which simultaneously ranks as the largest world in the main asteroid belt residing between Mars and Jupiter.

Ceres was nothing more than a fuzzy blob to humankinds most powerful telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), until the probe swooped in this year and achieved orbit on March 6, 2015.

The newly released, stunning video takes takes you on a tour like none before for a global cruise over the most fascinating features on Ceres – including the 2-mile-deep (4-km-deep) crater dubbed Occator and a towering 4-mile-tall (6 kilometer-tall) mountain as tall as any in North America.

The spectacular flyover animation was generated from high resolution images taken by Dawn’s framing camera during April and May and is narrated by Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer and Mission Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The video concludes with a 3D view, so you’ll need to whip out your handy red/blue glasses for the finale – a global view of the dwarf planet in 3D.

From the orbital altitude at that time ranging from about 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) to 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers), the highest-resolution regions on Ceres have a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel.

Pockmarked Ceres is an alien world unlike any other in our solar system, replete with unexplained bright spots and craters of many sizes, large and small.

Occatur has captured popular fascination world-wide because the 60 miles (90 kilometers) diameter crater is rife with a host of the bodies brightest spots and whose nature remains elusive to this day, nearly half a year after Dawn arrived in orbit this past spring.

“Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres, home,” says Rayman.

The crater is named after the Roman agriculture deity of harrowing, a method of pulverizing and smoothing soil.

Dawn is an international science mission managed by NASA and equipped with a trio of science instruments from the US, Germany and Italy. The framing camera was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), provided by Italy is an imaging spectrometer that examines Ceres in visible and infrared light.

Dawn’s science team is using the instruments to investigate the light reflecting from Occator at different wavelengths.

From a distance, the crater appeared to be home to a duo of bright spots that looked like a pair of eyes. As Dawn moves ever closer, they became more resolved and now are split into dozens of smaller bright spots.

Global view of Ceres uses data collected by NASA's Dawn mission in April and May 2015.  The highest-resolution parts of the map have a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI/PSI
Global view of Ceres uses data collected by NASA’s Dawn mission in April and May 2015. The highest-resolution parts of the map have a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI/PSI

Although some early speculation centered on the spots possibly being consistent with water ice or salts, newly gathered data “has not found evidence that is consistent with ice. The spots’ albedo -¬ a measure of the amount of light reflected -¬ is also lower than predictions for concentrations of ice at the surface,” according to the scientists.

“The science team is continuing to evaluate the data and discuss theories about these bright spots at Occator,” said Chris Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a statement.

“We are now comparing the spots with the reflective properties of salt, but we are still puzzled by their source. We look forward to new, higher-resolution data from the mission’s next orbital phase.”
Occator lies in Ceres northern hemisphere.

The huge pyramidal mountain lies farther to the southeast of Occator – at 11 degrees south, 316 degrees east.

Based on the latest calculations, the mountain sits about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, with respect to the surface around it. That make it roughly the same elevation as Mount McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska, the highest point in North America.

Among the highest features seen on Ceres so far is a mountain about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, which is roughly the elevation of Mount McKinley in Alaska's Denali National Park.  Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five to help understand the topography. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI
Among the highest features seen on Ceres so far is a mountain about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, which is roughly the elevation of Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five to help understand the topography. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI

The Texas-sized world is slightly smaller than previously thought. Based on new measurements from Dawn, Ceres’ average diameter to 584 miles (940 kilometers), compared to earlier estimates of 590 miles (950 kilometers).

Dawn made history in March when it simultaneously became the first probe from Earth to reach Ceres as well as the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies.

It had previously visited Vesta. After achieving orbit in July 2011, Dawn became the first spacecraft from Earth to orbit a body in the main Asteroid Belt.

In sharp contrast to rocky Vesta, Ceres is an icy world.

Scientists believe that Ceres may harbor an ocean of subsurface liquid water as large in volume as the oceans of Earth below a thick icy mantle despite its small size – and thus could be a potential abode for life. Overall Ceres is estimated to be about 25% water by mass.

“We really appreciate the interest in our mission and hope they are as excited as we have been about these scientific surprises,” Russell told Universe Today.

“Since we are only just beginning our investigation, I expect that there will be more surprises. So please stick with us!”

As Dawn spirals down to a lower orbit of about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) above Ceres (and then even lower) using its ion engines, new answers and new mysteries are sure to be forthcoming.

“There are many other features that we are interested in studying further,” said Dawn science team member David O’Brien, with the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona.

“These include a pair of large impact basins called Urvara and Yalode in the southern hemisphere, which have numerous cracks extending away from them, and the large impact basin Kerwan, whose center is just south of the equator.”

The mission is expected to last until at least June 2016 depending upon fuel reserves.

Dawn was launched 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.

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

Ken Kremer

Kirk, Spock and Sulu Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before — Charon!

A big smile. That was my reaction to seeing the names of Uhura, Spock, Kirk and Sulu on the latest map of Pluto’s jumbo moon Charon. The monikers are still only informal, but new maps of Charon and Pluto submitted to the IAU for approval feature some of our favorite real life and sci-fi characters. Come on — Vader Crater? How cool is that?

Four naming themes were selected for Charon’s features, three of which are based on fiction — Fictional Explorers and Travelers, Fictional Origins and Destinations, Fictional Vessels — and one on Exploration Authors, Artists and Directors. Clicking on each link will bring up a list of proposed names.

This image contains the initial, informal names being used by the New Horizons team for the features and regions on the surface of Pluto. The IAU will still need to give final approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image contains the initial, informal names being used by the New Horizons team for the features and regions on the surface of Pluto. The IAU will still need to give final approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto’s features, in contrast, are named for both real people and places as well as mythological beings of underworld mythology. Clyde Tombaugh, the dwarf world’s discoverer, takes center stage, with his name appropriately spanning 990 miles (1,590 km) of  frozen terrain nicknamed the “heart of Pluto”. Perhaps the most intriguing region of Pluto, it’s home to what appear to be glaciers of nitrogen ice still mobile at temperatures around –390°F (–234°C).

A close-up slice of Plutonian landscape centered on Tombaugh Regio with informal names waiting for approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
A close-up slice of Plutonian landscape centered on Tombaugh Regio with informal names waiting for approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto, being a physically, historically and emotionally bigger deal than Charon, comes with six themes. I’ve listed a few examples for each:

* Space Missions and Spacecraft – Sputnik, Voyager, Challenger
* Scientists and Engineers 
– Tombaugh, Lowell, Burney (after Venetia Burney, the young girl who named Pluto)
* Historic Explorers – Norgay, Cousteau, Isabella Bird
* Underworld Beings 
– Cthulu, Balrog (from Lord of the Rings), Anubis (Egyptian god associated with the afterlife)
* Underworlds and Underworld Locales 
– Tartarus (Greek “pit of lost souls”), Xibalba (Mayan underworld), Pandemonium (capital of hell in Paradise Lost) 
* Travelers to the Underworld 
– Virgil (tour guide in Dante’s Divine Comedy), Sun Wukong (Monkey king of Chinese mythology), Inanna (ancient Sumerian goddess)

Global map of Pluto's moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Global map of Pluto’s moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

There’s nothing like a name. Not only do names make sure we’re all talking about the same thing, but they’re how we begin to understand the unique landscapes presented to us by Pluto and its wonderful system of satellites. To keep them all straight, astronomers at the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Planetary System Nomemclature are charged with choosing themes for each planet, asteroid or moon along with individual names for craters, canyons, mountains, volcanoes based on those themes. Astronomers help the group by providing suggested themes and names. In the case of the Pluto system, the public joined in to help the astronomers by participating in the Our Pluto Naming Campaign.

Craters and fissures on Charon photographed during the flyby. Credit: NASA
Craters and fissures (fossae) on Charon photographed during the flyby. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

If you’ve followed naming conventions over the years, you’ve noticed more Latin in use, especially when it comes to basic land forms. I took Latin in college and loved it, but since few of us speak the ancient language anymore, we’re often at a loss to understand what’s being described. What’s a ‘Krun Macula’ or ‘Soyuz Colles’?

Photo of Pluto's nitrogen ice flows in Tombaugh Regio also shows several clumps of
Image I dug out of New Horizon’s LORRI archive shows Pluto’s nitrogen ice flows in Tombaugh Regio also shows several clumps of “colles”. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The first name is the proper name, so Krun denotes the Mandean god of the underworld. The second name – in Latin – describes the land form. Here’s a list of terms to help you translate the Plutonian and Charonian landscapes (plurals in parentheses):

Regio (Regi): Region
Mons (Montes): Mountain
Collis (Colles): Hill
Chasma (Chasmae): Canyon
Terra (Terrae): Land
Fossa (Fossae): Depression or fissure
Macula (Maculae): Spot
Valles (Valles): Valley
Rupes (Rupes): Cliff
Linea (Linea): Line
Dorsum (Dorsa): Wrinkle ridge
Cavus (Cava): Cavity or pit

Another LORRI photo showing icy Tombaugh Regio butting up against. Credit: NASA
Another LORRI photo showing icy Tombaugh Regio butting up against rugged, mountainous (montes) terrain. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Got it? Great. “Take us out, Mr. Sulu!”

Ceres Resembles Saturn’s Icy Moons

Ceres’ topography is revealed in full (but false) color in a new map created from elevation data gathered by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, now nearly five months in orbit around the dwarf planet orbiting the Sun within the main asteroid belt.

With craters 3.7 miles (6 km) deep and mountains rising about the same distance from its surface, Ceres bears a resemblance to some of Saturn’s frozen moons.

“The craters we find on Ceres, in terms of their depth and diameter, are very similar to what we see on Dione and Tethys, two icy satellites of Saturn that are about the same size and density as Ceres,” said Paul Schenk,  Dawn science team member and a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston, TX. “The features are pretty consistent with an ice-rich crust.”

Check out a rotation video of Ceres’ topography below:

In addition to elevation mapping Ceres has also had some of its more prominent craters named. No longer just “bright spot crater” and “Spot 1,” these ancient impact scars now have official IAU monikers… from the Roman Occator to the Hawaiian Haulani to the Hopi Kerwan, craters on Ceres are named after agriculture-related gods and goddesses of mythologies from around the world.

Ceres' "bright spot" crater is now named Occator, after the Roman god of harrowing. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Ceres’ famous “bright spot” crater is now named Occator, after the Roman god of harrowing. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

See a full list of Ceres’ named features here.

Dawn is currently moving closer toward Ceres into its third mapping orbit. By mid-August it will be 900 miles (1448 km) above Ceres’ surface and will proceed with acquiring data from this lower altitude, three times closer than it has been previously.

At 584 miles (940 km) in diameter Ceres is about 40 percent the size of Pluto.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is the first to successfully enter orbit around two different mission targets and the first to orbit a dwarf planet. Its first target was the asteroid Vesta, which it orbited from July 2011 to September 2012. Dawn arrived in orbit at Ceres on March 6, 2015 and there it will remain during its primary science phase and beyond; Ceres is now Dawn’s permanent home.

Learn more about the Dawn mission here and find out where Dawn and Ceres are now here.

Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.)
Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.)

Source: NASA

Faces of the Solar System

“Look, it has a tiny face on it!”

This sentiment was echoed ‘round the web recently, as an image of Pluto’s tiny moon Nix was released by the NASA New Horizons team. Sure, we’ve all been there. Lay back in a field on a lazy July summer’s day, and soon, you’ll see faces of all sorts in the puffy stratocumulus clouds holding the promise of afternoon showers.

Pluto's moon Nix as imaged by New Horizons from 590,000 kilometers distant. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Pluto’s moon Nix as imaged by New Horizons from 590,000 kilometers distant. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

This predilection is so hard-wired into our brains, that often our facial recognition software sees faces where there are none. Certainly, seeing faces is a worthy survival strategy; not only is this aspect of cognition handy in recognizing the friendlies of our own tribe, but it’s also useful in the reading of facial expressions by giving us cues of the myriad ‘tells’ in the social poker game of life.

And yes, there’s a term for the illusion of seeing faces in the visual static: pareidolia. We deal lots with pareidolia in astronomy and skeptical circles. As NASA images of brave new worlds are released, an army of basement bloggers are pouring over them, seeing miniature bigfoots, flowers, and yes, lots of humanoid figures and faces. Two craters and the gash of a trench for a mouth will do.

Now that new images of Pluto and its entourage of moons are pouring in, neural circuits ‘cross the web are misfiring, seeing faces, half-buried alien skeletons and artifacts strewn across Pluto and Charon. Of course, most of these claims are simply hilarious and easily dismissed… no one, for example, thinks the Earth’s Moon is an artificial construct, though its distorted nearside visage has been gazing upon the drama of humanity for millions of years.

Do you see the 'Man in the Moon?' Image credit: Dave Dickinson
Do you see the ‘Man in the Moon?’ Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The psychology of seeing faces is such that a whole region of the occipital lobe of the brain known as the fusiform face area is dedicated to facial recognition. We each have a unique set of neurons that fire in patterns to recognize the faces of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and other celebs (thanks, internet).

Damage this area at the base of the brain or mess with its circuitry, and a condition known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness can occur. Author Oliver Sacks and actor Brad Pitt are just a few famous personalities who suffer from this affliction.

The 'Snowman of Vesta,' as imaged by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The ‘Snowman of Vesta,’ as imaged by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Conversely, ‘super-recognizers’ at the other end of the spectrum have a keen sense for facial identification that verges on a super-power. True story: my wife has just such a gift, and can immediately spot second-string actors and actresses in modern movies from flicks and television shows decades old.

It would be interesting to know if there’s a correlation between face blindness, super-recognition and seeing faces in the shadows and contrast on distant worlds… to our knowledge, no such study has been conducted. Do super-recognizers see faces in the shadowy ridges and craters of the solar system more or less than everyone else?

A well-known example was the infamous ‘Face on Mars.’ Imaged by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1976, this half in shadow image looked like a human face peering back up at us from the surface of the Red Planet from the Cydonia region.

Image credit: The 'Face on Mars': HiRISE vs Viking 1 (inset): Image credit: NASA/JPL
Image credit: The ‘Face on Mars’: HiRISE vs Viking 1 (inset): Image credit: NASA/JPL

But when is a face not a face?

Now, it’s not an entirely far-fetched idea that an alien entity visiting the solar system would place something (think the monolith on the Moon from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) for us to find. The idea is simple: place such an artifact so that it not only sticks out like a sore thumb, but also so it isn’t noticed until we become a space-faring society. Such a serious claim would, however, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, demand serious and rigorous evidence.

But instead of ‘Big NASA’ moving to cover up the ‘face,’ they did indeed re-image the region with both the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global Surveyor at a much higher resolution. Though the 1.5 kilometer feature is still intriguing from a geological perspective… it’s now highly un-facelike in appearance.

A 'face' or... more fun with 'scifi spacecraft pareidolia. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Paramount Pictures
A ‘face’ or… more fun with ‘scifi spacecraft pareidolia.’ Image credit: NASA/JPL/Paramount Pictures

Of course, it won’t stop the deniers from claiming it was all a big cover-up… but if that were the case, why release such images and make them freely available online? We’ve worked in the military before, and can attest that NASA is actually the most transparent of government agencies.

We also know the click bait claims of all sorts of alleged sightings will continue to crop up across the web, with cries of ‘Wake up, Sheeople!’ (usually in all caps) as a brave band of science-writing volunteers continue to smack down astro-pareidolia on a pro bono basis in battle of darkness and light which will probably never end.

What examples of astro-pareidolia have you come across in your exploits?

What’s Up With Ceres’ Mysterious Bright Spots? Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later

Ceres' spots

The crater that contains those puzzlingly bright spots on Ceres may harbor an equally puzzling haze. Or not. The hints of haze on the dwarf planet, seen in some of the images coming from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, add another intriguing twist to Ceres’ mysteries.

The hubbub over haze arose this week during the Exploration Science Forum at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. For months, Dawn’s scientists have been observing – and trying to make sense out of – unusually reflective spots within Ceres’ craters that show up when the asteroid turns into the sunlight. The team has speculated that they could be frozen pools of water ice, or patches of light-colored, salt-rich material.

The brightest spots are known collectively as Spot 5, and sit inside Occator Crater on Ceres. Dawn’s principal investigator, Chris Russell of the University of California at Los Angeles, told the forum that some type of haze could be seen inside the crater at certain times of Ceres’ day, according to reports from Nature and the Planetary Society. Nature quoted Russell as saying the bright spots “could be providing some atmosphere in this particular region of Ceres.”

Last year, scientists with the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission reported detecting signs of water vapor rising from Ceres’ surface, and it would be tempting to suggest that the water vapor is emanating from bright icy spots and creating the haze. That would strengthen Ceres’ status as the only asteroid with a significant atmosphere and a subsurface reservoir of water, and stoke speculation about life on Ceres.

However, Russell told Universe Today that it’s way too early to give in to temptation.

“I was speaking from less than a handful of images, and the interpretation of the images is disputed by some team members,” Russell said in an email. “I would like the debate to go on internally before we make a pronouncement one way or the other. I of course have my personal opinion, but I am not always right.”

Russell said the ice-vs.-salt debate is continuing. “I originally was an advocate of ice, because of how bright the spots seemed to be,” he said. However, the bright material’s albedo, or reflectivity factor, is about 50 percent – which is less than Russell originally thought. “This could be salt and is unlikely to be ice. I think the team opinion is now more in line with salt,” he said.

Either way, Russell doesn’t see any way for the spots to form without internal activity on Ceres. “Thus, the very existence of the spots tells us that there is some active process going on,” he told Universe Today.

Will we ever know if the haze is for real? Or what the spots are made of? As the Magic 8-Ball might say, “Ask again later.” The Dawn spacecraft recently recovered from a mechanical glitch and is gradually descending to a closer mapping orbit, around an altitude of 900 miles (1,500 kilometers). That will provide a much better look at Occator Crater and what lies within.

“Eventually I am expecting the spectral data will unambiguously tell us what has happened to the surface,” Russell said, “but it is a little too soon to be sure.”