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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here’s to continued success!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn was launched in September 2007.

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

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Selects Aerojet Rocketdyne to Develop Solar Electric Propulsion for Deep Space Missions

This prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster was tested at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and  will be used by industry to develop high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system.  Credits: NASA
This prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster was tested at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and will be used by industry to develop high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system. Credits: NASA

NASA has selected Aerojet Rocketdyne to design and develop an advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) system that will serve as a critical enabling technology for sending humans and robots on deep space exploration missions to cislunar space, asteroids and the Red Planet.

Under the 3 year, $67 million contract award, Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop the engineering development unit for an Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) with the potential for follow on flight units.

NASA hopes that the work will result in a 10 fold increase in “spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency compared to current chemical propulsion technology and more than double thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems.”

The SEP effort is based in part on NASA’s exploratory work on Hall ion thrusters which trap electrons in a magnetic field and uses them to ionize and accelerate the onboard xenon gas propellant to produce thrust much more efficiently than chemical thrusters.

The solar electric propulsion (SEP) system technology will afford benefits both to America’s commercial space and scientific space exploration capabilities.

For NASA, the SEP technology can be applied for expeditions to deep space such as NASA’s planned Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission (ARRM) to snatch a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and return it to cislunar space during the 2020s, as well as to carry out the agency’s ambitious plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ during the 2030s.

“High power SEP is a perfect example of NASA developing cross cutting technologies to enable both human and robotic deep space missions. Basically it enables high efficiency and better gas mileage,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington, at a media briefing.

“The advantage here is the higher power and the higher thrust.”

“Our plan right now is to flight test the higher power solar electric propulsion that Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop for us on the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), which is going to go out to an asteroid with a robotic system, grab a boulder off of an asteroid, and bring it back to a lunar orbit.”

ARRM would launch around 2020 or 2021. Astronauts would blast off several years later in NASA’s Orion crew capsule in 2025 after the robotic probes travels back to lunar orbit.

For industry, electric propulsion is used increasingly to maneuver thrusters in Earth orbiting commercial satellites for station keeping in place of fuel.

“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade,” says Jurczyk.

“Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”

This 13-kilowatt Hall thruster is being evaluated at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland for advanced solar electric propulsion.  Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and use them to ionize the onboard propellant. Credits: NASA
This 13-kilowatt Hall thruster is being evaluated at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland for advanced solar electric propulsion. Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and use them to ionize the onboard propellant. Credits: NASA

“This is also a critical capability for enabling human missions to Mars, with respect to delivering cargo to the surface to Mars that will allow people to live and work there on the surface. Also for combined chemical and SEP systems on a spacecraft to propel humans to Mars,” elaborated Jurczyk at the briefing.

“Another application is round trip robotic science missions to Mars to bring back samples – such as a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.”

The starting point is NASA’s development and technology readiness testing of a prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster and power processing unit at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Under the contract award Aerojet Rocketdyne aims to carry out the industrial development of “high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system.”

They will develop, build, test and deliver “an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness,” as an engineering development unit.

This engineering development unit serves as the basis for producing commercial flight units.

If successful, NASA has an option to purchase up to four integrated flight units for actual space missions. Engineers from NASA Glenn and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will provide technical support.

“We could string together four of these engine units to get approximately 50 kilowatts of electrical propulsion capability and with that we can do significant orbital transfer operations. That then becomes the next step in deep space exploration operations that we are trying to do,” said Bryan Smith, director of the Space Flight Systems Directorate at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, at the media briefing.

“We hope to buy four of these units for the ARRM mission.”

What were some of NASA’s research and development (R&D) activities and further plans for Aerojet Rocketdyne?

“NASA is driving out the technology itself for feasibility. So we produced a developmental device to operate at these levels,” Smith told Universe Today during the briefing.

“Other key characteristics we were looking for is the ability to do magnetic shielding. The purpose was to allow for a long life thruster operation. We investigated attributes like thermal problems and balancing the erosion mechanisms in developmental units. So we were looking for things to get longer life and feasibility in developmental units.”

“Once we were comfortable with the feasibility in developmental units, we are now transferring the information, technology and knowhow into what is a production article, in this contract.”

Robotic sampling arm and capture mechanism to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid are under development at NASA Goddard and other agency centers for NASA’s unmanned Asteroid Redirect Vehicle and eventual docking in lunar orbit with Orion crew vehicle by the mid 2020s.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Robotic sampling arm and capture mechanism to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid are under development at NASA Goddard and other agency centers for NASA’s unmanned Asteroid Redirect Vehicle and eventual docking in lunar orbit with Orion crew vehicle by the mid 2020s. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Solar electric ion propulsion is already being used in NASA’s hugely successful Dawn asteroid orbiter mission.

Dawn was launched in 2007. It orbited and surveyed Vesta in 2011 and 2012 and then traveled outward to Ceres.

Dawn arrived at dwarf planet Ceres in March 2015 and is currently conducting breakthrough science at its lowest planned science mapping orbit.

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. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

A key part of the Journey to Mars, NASA will be sending cargo missions to the Red Planet to pave the way for human expeditions with the Orion crew module and Space Launch System.

Aerojet Rocketdyne states that “Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) systems have demonstrated the ability to reduce the mission cost for NASA Human Exploration cargo missions by more than 50 percent through the use of existing flight-proven SEP systems.”

“Using a SEP tug for cargo delivery, combined with NASA’s Space Launch System and the Orion crew module, provides an affordable path for deep space exploration,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne Vice President, Space and Launch Systems, Julie Van Kleeck.

Aerojet Rocketdyne artists concept for solar electric propulsion system for deep space missions. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne
Aerojet Rocketdyne artists concept for solar electric propulsion system for deep space missions. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Another near term application of high power solar electric propulsion could be for NASA’s proposed Mars 2022 telecom orbiter, said Smith at the media briefing.

Other NASA technology work in progress includes development of more efficient, advanced solar array systems to generate the additional power required for the larger electric thrusters.

Orbital ATK was part of the development effort and already used some of its technology development in the ultraflex solar arrays on the recent Cygnus cargo ships delivering supplies to the ISS.

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haulani Crater has a diameter of 21 miles (34 kilometers) and apparently was formed by an impacting object relatively recently in geologic time and is also one of the brightest areas on Ceres.

“Haulani perfectly displays the properties we would expect from a fresh impact into the surface of Ceres. The crater floor is largely free of impacts, and it contrasts sharply in color from older parts of the surface,” said Martin Hoffmann, co-investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, in a statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

Dawn Starts Steep Descent to Most Dazzling Orbit of Ceres

The most dazzling views ever seen of dwarf planet Ceres and its mysterious bright spots are what’s on tap by year’s end as NASA’s amazing Dawn spacecraft starts a gradual but steep descent over the next two months to its lowest and final orbit around the bizarre icy body.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) successfully fired up the probes exotic ion propulsion system to begin lowering Dawn’s orbital altitude to less than a quarter of what it has been for the past two months of intense mapping operations.

On Oct. 23, Dawn began a seven-week-long dive that uses ion thruster #2 to reduce the spacecrafts vantage point from 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) at the High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) down to less than 235 miles (380 kilometers) above Ceres at the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO).

Dawn is slated to arrive at LAMO by mid-December, just in time to begin delivering the long awaiting Christmas treats.

Ceres has absolutely tantalized researchers far beyond their wildest expectations.

When Dawn arrives at LAMO it will be the culmination of an eight year interplanetary voyage that began with a blastoff on September 27, 2007 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex-17B (SLC-17B) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

LAMO marks Dawn’s fourth, lowest and final science orbit at Ceres where the highest resolution observations will be gathered and images from the framing camera will achieve a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.

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

At LAMO, researchers hope to finally resolve the enduring mystery of the nature of the bright spots that have intrigued science and the general public since they were first glimpsed clearly early this year as Dawn was on its final approach to Ceres.

Dawn arrived in orbit this past spring on March 6, 2015.

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

The science team has just released a new mosaic of the brightest spots on Ceres found at Occator crater and the surrounding terrain – see above.

The images were taken from the HAMO altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) during the first of six mapping cycles. They have a resolution of 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel.

Occator measures about 60 miles (90 kilometers) across and 2 miles (4 kilometers) deep.

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

Because the spots are so bright they are generally overexposed. Therefore the team took two sets of images, with shorter and longer exposure times, to maximize the details of the interior of Occator.

“This view uses a composite of two images of Occator: one using a short exposure that captures the detail in the bright spots, and one where the background surface is captured at normal exposure.”

The bright spots at Occator crater remain the biggest Cerean mystery.

So far the imagery and other science data may point to evaporation of salty water from the interior as the source of the bright spots.

“Occasional water leakage on to the surface could leave salt there as the water would sublime,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator told Universe Today exclusively.

“The big picture that is emerging is that Ceres fills a unique niche.”

“Ceres fills a unique niche between the cold icy bodies of the outer solar system, with their rock hard icy surfaces, and the water planets Mars and Earth that can support ice and water on their surfaces,” Russell, of the University of California, Los Angeles, told me.

Dawn has peeled back Ceres secrets as the spacecraft orbits lower and lower. Detailed measurements gathered to date have yielded global mineral and topographic maps from HAMO with the best resolution ever as the science team painstakingly stitched together the probes spectral and imaging products.

And the best is yet to come at LAMO.

At HAMO, Dawn’ instruments, including the Framing Camera and Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (VIR) were aimed at slightly different angles in each mapping cycle allowing the team to generate stereo views and construct 3-D maps.

“The emphasis during HAMO is to get good stereo data on the elevations of the surface topography and to get good high resolution clear and color data with the framing camera,” Russell explained.

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

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

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

Ceres is a Texas-sized world, ranks as the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and may have a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could be hospitable to life.

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

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

“It will end some time between March and December,” Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, told Universe Today.

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

Ken Kremer

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

A Mission to a Metal World: The Psyche Mission

In their drive to set exploration goals for the future, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for proposals for their thirteenth Discovery mission in February 2014. After reviewing the 27 initial proposals, a panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers recently selected five semifinalists for additional research and development, one or two of which will be launching by the 2020s.

With an eye to Venus, near-Earth objects and asteroids, these missions are looking beyond Mars to address other questions about the history and formation of our Solar System. Among them is the proposed Psyche mission, a robotic spacecraft that will explore the metallic asteroid of the same name – 16 Psyche – in the hopes of shedding some light on the mysteries of planet formation.

Discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17th, 1852 – and named after a Greek mythological figure – Psyche is one the ten most-massive asteroids in the Asteroid Belt. It is also the most massive M-type asteroid, a special class pertaining to asteroids composed primarily of nickel and iron.

For some time, scientists have speculated that this metallic asteroid is in fact the survivor of a protoplanet. In this scenario, a violent collision with a planetesimal stripped off Psyche’s outer, rocky layers, leaving behind only the dense, metallic interior. This theory is supported by estimates of Psyche’s bulk density, spectra, and radar surface properties; all of which show it to be an object unlike any others in the Belt.

Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.
Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.

In addition, this composition of 16 Psyche is strikingly similar to that of Earth’s metal core. Given that astronomers think that larger planets like Venus, Earth and Mars formed from the collision and merger of smaller worlds, Psyche could be the remains of a protoplanet that did not get to create a larger body.

Had such a planetesimal been struck by a large enough object, it would have been able to lose its lower-mass exterior while keeping its core intact. Thus, studying this 250 km (155 mile) wide body, offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the interiors of planets and large moons, whose cores are hidden beneath many miles of rock.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is the Principle Investigator of this mission. As she and her team stated in their mission proposal paper, which was originally submitted as part of the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2014):

“This mission would be a journey back in time to one of the earliest periods of planetary accretion, when the first bodies were not only differentiating, but were being pulverized, shredded, and accreted by collisions. It is also an exploration, by proxy, of the interiors of terrestrial planets and satellites today: we cannot visit a metallic core any other way.

“For all of these reasons, coupled with the relative accessibility to low- cost rendezvous and orbit, Psyche is a superb target for a Discovery-class mission that would characterize its geology, shape, elemental composition, magnetic field , and mass distribution.”

The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss
The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss

A robotic mission to Pysche would also help astronomers learn more about metal worlds, a type of solar system object that scientists know very little about. But perhaps the greatest reason to study 16 Psyche is the fact that it is unique. So far, this body is the only metallic core-like body that has been discovered in the Solar System.

The proposed spacecraft would orbit Psyche for six months, studying its topography, surface features, gravity, magnetism, and other characteristics. The mission would also be cost-effective and quick to launch, since it is largely based on technology that went into the making of NASA’s Dawn probe. Currently in orbit around Ceres, the Dawn mission has demonstrated the effectiveness of many new technologies, not the least of which was the xenon ion thruster.

The Psyche orbiter mission was selected as one of the Discovery Program’s five semifinalists on September 30th, 2015. Each proposal has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. One or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations) and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

The Next Generation of Exploration: The DAVINCI Spacecraft

It’s no secret that there has been a resurgence in interest in space exploration in recent years. Much of the credit for this goes to NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts on Mars, which in the past few years have revealed things like organic molecules on the surface, evidence of flowing water, and that the planet once had a denser atmosphere –  all of which indicate that the planet may have once been hospitable to life.

But when it comes to the future, NASA is looking beyond Mars to consider missions that will send missions to Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. With an eye to Venus, they are busy investigating the possibility of sending the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) spacecraft to the planet by the 2020s.

Led by Lori Glaze of the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the DAVINCI descent craft would essentially pick up where the American and Soviet space programs left off with the Pioneer and Venera Programs in the 1970s and 80s. The last time either country sent a probe into Venus’ atmosphere was in 1985, when the Soviet probes Vega 1 and 2 both orbited the planet and released a balloon-supported aerobot into the upper atmosphere.

Model of the Vega 1 solar system probe bus and landing apparatus (model) - Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia, USA. Credit: historicspacecraft.com
Model of the Vega 1 probe and landing apparatus at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. Credit: historicspacecraft.com

These probes both remained operational for 46 hours and discovered just how turbulent and powerful Venus’ atmosphere was. In contrast, the DAVINCI probe’s mission will be to study both the atmosphere and surface of Venus, and hopefully shed some light on some of the planet’s newfound mysteries. According to the NASA release:

“DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.”

These studies will attempt to build upon the data obtained by the Venus Express spacecraft, which in 2008/2009 noted the presence of several infrared hot spots in the Ganis Chasma region near the the shield volcano of Maat Mons (shown below). Believed to be due to volcanic eruptions, this activity was thought to be responsible for significant changes that were noted in the sulfur dioxide (SO²) content in the atmosphere at the time.

What’s more, the Pioneer Venus spacecraft – which studied the planet’s atmosphere from 1978 until its orbit decayed in 1992 – noted a tenfold decreased in the density of SO² at the cloud tops, which was interpreted as a decline following an episode of volcanogenic upwelling from the lower atmosphere.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons, generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Commonly associated with volcanic activity here on Earth, SO² is a million times more abundant in Venus’ atmosphere, where it helps to power the runaway greenhouse effect that makes the planet so inhospitable. However, any SO² released into Venus’ atmosphere is also short-lived, being broken down by sunlight within a matter of days.

Hence, any significant changes in SO² levels in the upper atmosphere must have been a recent addition, and some scientists believe that the spike observed in 2008/2009 was due to a large volcano (or several) erupting. Determining whether or not this is the case, and whether or not volcanic activity plays an active role in the composition of Venus’s thick atmosphere, will be central to DAVINCI’s mission.

Along with four other mission concepts, DAVINCI was selected as a semifinalist for the NASA Discovery Program‘s latest calls for proposed missions. Every few years, the Discovery Program – a low-cost planetary missions program that is managed by the JPL’s Planetary Science Division – puts out a call for missions with an established budget of around $500 million (not counting the cost of launch or operation).

The latest call for submissions took place in February 2014, as part of the Discovery Mission 13. At the time, a total of 27 teams threw their hats into the ring to become part of the next round of space exploration missions. Last Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, one (or possibly two) of which will be chosen as the winner(s) by September 2016.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander, which was selected as part of the Discovery Programs 2010 call for submissions and will be launched by 2016. Credit: JPL/NASA

These finalists will receive $3 million in federal grants for detailed concept studies, and the mission (or missions) that are ultimately chosen will be launched by December 31st, 2021. The Discovery Program began back in 1992, and launched its first mission- the Mars Pathfinder – in 1996. Other Discovery missions include the NEAR Shoemaker probe that first orbited an asteroid, and the Stardust-NExT project, which returned samples of comet and interstellar dust to Earth.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, and the Dawn spacecraft were also developed and launched under the Discovery program. The winning proposal of the Discovery Program’s 12th mission, which was issued back in 2010, was the InSight Mars lander. Set to launch in March of 2016, the lander will touch down on the red planet, deploy instruments to the planet’s interior, and measure its seismic activity.

NASA hopes to infuse the next mission with new technologies, offering up government-furnished equipment with incentives to sweeten the deal for  each proposal. These include a supply of deep space optical communications system that are intended to test new high-speed data links with Earth. Science teams that choose to incorporate the laser telecom unit will be entitled to an extra $30 million above their $450 million cost cap.

If science teams wish to send entry probes into the atmospheres of Venus or Saturn, they will need a new type of heat shield. Hence, NASA’s solicitation includes a provision to furnish a newly-developed 3D-woven heat shield with a $10 million incentive. A deep space atomic clock is also available with a $5 million bonus, and NASA has offered to provide xenon ion thrusters and radioisotope heater units without incentives.

As with previous Discovery missions, NASA has stipulated that the mission must use solar power, limiting mission possibilities beyond Jupiter and Saturn. Other technologies may include the NEXT ion thruster and/or re-entry technology.

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

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

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