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.

Ceres Has Lots of Bright Spots

Those bright mystery spots aren’t the only ones on Ceres. Recent photos posted on JPL’s Photojournal site  feature a spectacular rayed crater resembling the familiar lunar craters Kepler and Copernicus.

Unique view of the lunar crater Proclus showing an extension system of bright rays taken from Apollo 15. Credit: NASA
Unique view of the lunar crater Proclus showing an extension system of bright rays taken from Apollo 15. Credit: NASA
Bright dribs and drabs of material are seen in this photo taken by Dawn on May 22, 2015 from 3,200 miles (5,100 km). Credit: NASA
Bright dots and patches of material are seen in this photo taken by Dawn on May 22, 2015 from 3,200 miles (5,100 km) away. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Taken back on May 4 from 8,400 miles, this photo shows the rayed crater (bottom) and another bright spot. Credit:
Taken back on May 4 from 8,400 miles (13,600 km), this photo shows the rayed crater (bottom) and another bright spot above center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Lunar rays are bright because they contrast with their older surroundings which have been darkened by exposure to solar and cosmic radiation. Impacts expose fresh material from below the surface that settles into a spider web of rays around the newly excavated crater. Huge boulders lofted above the Moon’s surface during the impact slam back into the crust to create secondary craters also crowned with bright dust and rock.

Based on Ceres' density, it contains a large fraction of low density materials including clays, water ice, salts and organic compounds. This schematic gives a general idea of the dwarf planet's makeup. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
Based on Ceres’ density, it contains a large fraction of low density materials including clays, water ice, salts and organic compounds. This schematic gives a general idea of the dwarf planet’s makeup. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Most models of Ceres depict a rocky crust,  mantle of ice and a rocky inner core.  This makes us wonder if the bright material unearthed might be ice. If so, it would gradually vaporize on the virtually air-free dwarf planet.

Dawn will spend through early 2016 at Ceres during its primary mission and then remain in orbit there perpetually. We should be able to cipher the composition of the white material during that time with the spacecraft’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector and Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, but a lengthy stay might allow us to see changes in the extent of any ice exposures as they gradually vaporize away.

Uncropped, untoned view of the rayed crater seen in the earlier image. Credit:
Uncropped, untoned view of the rayed crater seen in the earlier image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

One thing we know for certain about Ceres are its dimensions. Dawn observations have revised the size to be about 599 miles (963 km) across at the equator with a polar diameter of 554 miles (891 km). Like Earth and other planets, Ceres is a slightly flattened sphere wider at the equator than from pole to pole. The temperature there ranges from about -100°F (-73°C) during the day and dips to -225°F (-143°C) at night. That makes its daytime high about 28° warmer than coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth.

Dawn Does Dramatic Fly Over of Ceres, Enters Lower Mapping Orbit: Video

Video caption: This new video animation of Ceres was created from images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft at altitudes of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) and 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) away. Vertical dimension has been exaggerated by a factor of two and a star field added. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Scientists leading NASA’s Dawn mission to dwarf planet Ceres have just released a brand new animated video showing a dramatic fly over of the heavily cratered world featuring its mysterious bright spots whose exact origin and nature remain elusive.

Meanwhile, the venerable probe has just successfully entered its new and lower mapping orbit on June 3 from which researchers hope to glean hordes of new data to unravel the secrets of the bright spots and unlock the nature of Ceres origin and evolution.

Pockmarked Ceres is an alien world unlike any other in our solar system.

“Dawn completed the maneuvering to reach its second mapping orbit and stopped ion-thrusting on schedule. Since May 9, the spacecraft has reduced its orbital altitude from 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) to 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers),” reported Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer/ Mission Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“As Dawn flew 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) over Ceres’ north pole on June 5 that marked the beginning of the new mapping phase, and Dawn began taking photos and making other measurements on schedule.”

Each orbit of Dawn around Ceres at this second science mapping orbit lasts 3.1 days.

The new video was created by the research team based on observations of Ceres that were taken from Dawn’s initial mapping orbit, at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), as well as the most recent navigational images taken from 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers), according to NASA.

It is based on data from over 80 images captured by Dawn’s framing cameras which were provided The German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany.

The images were used to provide a three-dimensional video view. The vertical dimension is exaggerated by a factor of two in the video.

“We used a three-dimensional terrain model that we had produced based on the images acquired so far,” said Dawn team member Ralf Jaumann of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), in Berlin.

“They will become increasingly detailed as the mission progresses — with each additional orbit bringing us closer to the surface.”

Imagery of the mysterious bright spots show them to seemingly be sheets of many spots of water ice, and not just single huge patches. The famous duo of ice spots are located inside the middle of a 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide crater situated in Ceres northern hemisphere.

Dawn is an international science mission managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. The trio of science instruments are 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).

This view of Ceres was taken by Dawn spacecraft on May 23 and shows finer detail becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) with a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This view of Ceres was taken by Dawn spacecraft on May 23 and shows finer detail becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) with a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn will spend most if June at this second mapping orbit before firing up the ion engines and spiraling yet lower for a mission expected to last until at least June 2016.

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

Ken Kremer

Dawn’s spiral descent from its first mapping orbit (RC3) to its second (survey). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn’s trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting on May 9, to red, when ion-thrusting concludes on June 3. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting, mostly for telecommunications. The first two coast periods include OpNav 8 and 9. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Dawn’s spiral descent from its first mapping orbit (RC3) to its second (survey). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn’s trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting on May 9, to red, when ion-thrusting concludes on June 3. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting, mostly for telecommunications. The first two coast periods include OpNav 8 and 9. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ceres Bizarre Bright Spot Now Has a Companion

Aliens making dinner with a solar cooker? Laser beams aimed at hapless earthlings? Whatever can that – now those – bright spots on Ceres be? The most recent images taken by the Dawn spacecraft now reveal that the bright pimple has a companion spot. Both are tucked inside a substantial crater and seem to glow with an intensity out of proportion to the otherwise dark and dusky surrounding landscape.“The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany. “This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us.”

Tight crop of the two bright spots. Could they be ice? Volcano-related? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Tight crop of the two bright spots. Could they be ice? Volcano-related? Credit:

It’s a mystery bound to stir fresh waves of online speculative pseudoscience. The hucksters better get moving. Dawn is fewer than 29,000 miles (46,000 km) away and closing fast. On March 6 it will be captured by Ceres gravity and begin orbiting the dwarf planet for a year or more. Like waking up and rubbing the sleep from your eyes, our view of Ceres and its enigmatic “twin glows” will become increasingly clear in about six weeks.

Dawn's approaches Ceres from the left (direction of the Sun) and gets captured by its gravity. The craft first gets closer as it approaches but then recedes (moves off to right) before closing in again and ultimately orbiting the asteroid. The solid lines show where Dawn is thrusting with its ion engine. As it swings to the right of Ceres, photos will show it as a crescent. Credit: NASA/Marc Rayman
Dawn approaches Ceres from the left (direction of the Sun) and gets captured by its gravity. The craft first gets closer as it approaches but then recedes (moves off to right) before closing in again and ultimately settling into orbit around the asteroid. The solid lines show where Dawn is thrusting with its ion engine. As it swings to the right, photos will show Ceres as a crescent. Credit: NASA/Marc Rayman

Why not March 6th when it enters orbit? Momentum is temporarily carrying the probe beyond Ceres. Only after a series of balletic moves to reshape its orbit to match that of Ceres will it be able to return more detailed images. You’ll recall that Rosetta did the same before finally settling into orbit around Comet 67P.

Closest approach occurred on Feb. 23 at 24,000 miles (38,600 km); at the moment the spacecraft is moving beyond Ceres at the very relaxed rate of 35 mph (55 kph).

This and the photo below were taken on Feb. 19, 2015 and processed to enhance clarity. Notice the very large but shallow crater below center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This and the photo below were taken on Feb. 19, 2015 and processed to enhance clarity. Notice the very large but shallow crater below center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

We do know that unlike Dawn’s first target, the asteroid Vesta, Ceres is rich in water ice. It’s thought that it possesses a mantle of ice and possibly even ice on its surface. In January 2014, ESA’s orbiting Herschel infrared observatory detected water vapor given off by the dwarf planet. Clays have been identified in its crust as well, making Ceres unique compared to many asteroids in the main belt that orbit between Mars and Jupiter.

Given the evidence for H20,  we could be seeing ice reflecting sunlight possibly from a recent impact that exposed new material beneath the asteroid’s space-weathered skin. If so, it’s odd that the spot should be almost perfectly centered in the crater.

This and the photo below were taken on Feb. 19, 2015 and processed to enhance clarity. Notice the very large but shallow crater below center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
A different hemisphere of Ceres photographed on Feb. 19. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, offers another possible scenario, where the bright spots “may be pointing to a volcano-like origin.” Might icy volcanism in the form of cryovolcanoes have created the dual white spots? Or is the white material fresh, pale-colored rock either erupted from below or exposed by a recent impact? Ceres is a very dark world with an albedo or reflectivity even less than our asphalt-dark Moon. Freshly exposed rock or ice might stand out starkly.

An 8.8g part slice of the eucrite meteorite NWA 3147. Most eucrites are derived from lava flows on the asteroid Vesta. Credit: Bob King
A part slice of the eucrite meteorite NWA 3147. Most eucrites are derived from lava flows on the asteroid Vesta and are rich in light-toned minerals. Credit: Bob King

One of the more common forms of asteroid lava found on Earth are the eucrite achondrite meteorites. Many are rich in plagioclase and other pale minerals that are good reflectors of light. Of course, these are all speculations, but the striking contrast of bright and dark certainly piques our curiosity.

Artist’s concept of Dawn in its survey orbit at dwarf planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of Dawn in its survey orbit at dwarf planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Additional higher resolutions photos streamed back by Dawn show a fascinating array of crater types from small and deep to large and shallow. On icy worlds, ancient impact craters gradually “relax” and lose relief over time, flattening as it were. We’ve seen this on the icy Galilean moons of Jupiter and perhaps the largest impact basins on Ceres are examples of same.

Questions, speculations. Our investigation of any new world seen up close for the first time always begins with questions … and often ends with them, too.