Ceres Rolled Over at Some Point in the Past

In 2007, the Dawn mission launched from Earth and began making its way towards two historic rendezvous in the Main Asteroid Belt. The purpose of this mission was to learn more about the history of the early Solar System by studying the two largest protoplanets in the Main Belt – Ceres and Vesta – which have remained intact since their formation.

In 2015, the Dawn mission arrived in orbit around Ceres and began sending back data that has shed light on the protoplanet’s surface, composition and interior structure. Based on mission data, Pasquale Tricarico – the senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) – has also determined that the Ceres also experienced an indirect polar reorientation in the past, where its pole rolled approximately 36° off-axis.

Continue reading “Ceres Rolled Over at Some Point in the Past”

Ceres Has Even More Organic Molecules on it Than Previously Thought

In March of 2015, NASA’s Dawn mission became the first spacecraft to visit the protoplanet Ceres, the largest body in the Main Asteroid Belt. It was also the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, having arrived a few months before the New Horizons mission made its historic flyby of Pluto. Since that time, Dawn has revealed much about Ceres, which in turn is helping scientists to understand the early history of the Solar System.

Last year, scientists with NASA’s Dawn mission made a startling discovery when they detected complex chains of carbon molecules – organic material essential for life – in patches on the surface of Ceres. And now, thanks to a new study conducted by a team of researchers from Brown University (with the support of NASA), it appears that these patches contain more organic material than previously thought.

The new findings were recently published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters under the title “New Constraints on the Abundance and Composition of Organic Matter on Ceres“. The study was led by Hannah Kaplan, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, with the assistance of Ralph E. Milliken and Conel M. O’D. Alexander – an assistant professor at Brown University and a researcher from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, respectively.

A new analysis of Dawn mission data suggests those organics could be more plentiful than originally thought. Credit: NASA/Rendering by Hannah Kaplan

The organic materials in question are known as “aliphatics”, a type of compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. To be fair, the presence of organic material on Ceres does not mean that the body supports life since such molecules can arise from non-biological processes.

Aliphatics have also been detected on other planets in the form of methane (on Mars and especially on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan). Nevertheless, such molecules remains an essential building block for life and their presence at Ceres raises the question of how they got there. As such, scientists are interested in how it and other life-essential elements (like water) has been distributed throughout the Solar System.

Since Ceres is abundant in both organic molecules and water, it raises some intriguing possibilities about the protoplanet. The results of this study and the methods they used could also provide a template for interpreting data for future missions. As Dr. Kaplan – who led the research while completing her PhD at Brown – explained in a recent Brown University press release:

“What this paper shows is that you can get really different results depending upon the type of organic material you  use to compare with and interpret the Ceres data. That’s important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material.”

Enhanced color-composite image, made with data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows the area around Ernutet crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The original discovery of organics on Ceres took place in 2017 when an international team of scientists analyzed data from the Dawn mission’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRMS). The data provided by this instrument indicated the presence of these hydrocarbons in a 1000 km² region around of the Ernutet crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres and measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter.

To get an idea of how abundant the organic compounds were, the original research team compared the VIRMS data to spectra obtained in a laboratory from Earth rocks with traces of organic material. From this, they concluded that between 6 and 10% of the spectral signature detected on Ceres could be explained by organic matter.

They also hypothesized that the molecules were endogenous in origin, meaning that they originated from inside the protoplanet. This was consistent with previous surveys that showed signs of hydorthermal activity on Ceres, as well others that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts – all of which suggested that Ceres had an interior environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.

But for the sake of their study, Kaplan and her colleagues re-examined the data using a different standard. Instead of relying on Earth rocks for comparison, they decided to examine an extraterrestrial source. In the past, some meteorites – such as carbonaceous chondrites – have been shown to contain organic material that is slightly different than what we are familiar with here on Earth.

Artist’s rendition of the Dawn mission on approach to the protoplanet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

After re-examining the spectral data using this standard, Kaplan and her team determined that the organics found on Ceres were distinct from their terrestrial counterparts. As Kaplan explained:

“What we find is that if we model the Ceres data using extraterrestrial organics, which may be a more appropriate analog than those found on Earth, then we need a lot more organic matter on Ceres to explain the strength of the spectral absorption that we see there. We estimate that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics. That’s a huge difference compared to the six to 10 percent previously reported based on terrestrial organic compounds.”

If the concentrations of organic material are indeed that high, then it raises new questions about where it came from. Whereas the original discovery team claimed it was endogenous in origin, this new study suggests that it was likely delivered by an organic-rich comet or asteroid. On the one hand, the high concentrations on the surface of Ceres are more consistent with a comet impact.

This is due to the fact that comets are known to have significantly higher internal abundances of organics compared with primitive asteroids, similar to the 40% to 50% figure this study suggests for these locations on Ceres. However, much of those organics would have been destroyed due to the heat of the impact, which leaves the question of how they got there something of a mystery.

Dawn spacecraft data show a region around the Ernutet crater where organic concentrations have been discovered (labeled “a” through “f”). The color coding shows the strength of the organics absorption band, with warmer colors indicating the highest concentrations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA

If they did arise endogenously, then there is the question of how such high concentrations emerged in the northern hemisphere. As Ralph Milliken explained:

“If the organics are made on Ceres, then you likely still need a mechanism to concentrate it in these specific locations or at least to preserve it in these spots. It’s not clear what that mechanism might be. Ceres is clearly a fascinating object, and understanding the story and origin of organics in these spots and elsewhere on Ceres will likely require future missions that can analyze or return samples.”

Given that the Main Asteroid Belt is composed of material left over from the formation of the Solar System, determining where these organics came from is expected to shed light on how organic molecules were distributed throughout the Solar System early in its history. In the meantime, the researchers hope that this study will inform upcoming sample missions to near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), which are also thought to host water-bearing minerals and organic compounds.

These include the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2, which is expected to arrive at the asteroid Ryugu in several weeks’ time, and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission – which is due to reach the asteroid Bennu in August. Dr. Kaplan is currently a science team member with the OSIRIS-REx mission and hopes that the Dawn study she led will help the OSIRIS-REx‘s mission characterize Bennu’s environment.

“I think the work that went into this study, which included new laboratory measurements of important components of primitive meteorites, can provide a framework of how to better interpret data of asteroids and make links between spacecraft observations and samples in our meteorite collection,” she said. “As a new member to the OSIRIS-REx team, I’m particularly interested in how this might apply to our mission.”

The New Horizons mission is also expected to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69 on January 1st, 2019. Between these and other studies of “ancient objects” in our Solar System – not to mention interstellar asteroids that are being detected for the first time – the history of the Solar System (and the emergence of life itself) is slowly becoming more clear.

Further Reading: Brown University, Geophysical Research Letters

Mission to Metal World Takes a Big Step Forward with Thruster Test

As NASA sets its sight on the next generation of space exploration, one area of focus is on missions that can teach us more about our Solar System. This was a major priority during the thirteenth round of NASA’s Discovery Program, which put out the call for proposals back in February of 2014. One of the proposals to make the cut was the Psyche mission, which will send an orbiter to the asteroid of the same name in 2o22.

This mission is unique in that it will entail visiting an asteroid that is entirely composed of metal, which scientists believe is the remnant core of an early planet. For the sake of the mission, NASA’s Glenn Research Center has been working hard to develop a cutting-edge, next-generation thruster that balances power with fuel efficiency. This thruster was recently subjected to tests designed to simulate its journey through space.

Originally discovered in 1852, the object known as 16 Psyche has been a source of fascination ever since astronomers were able to determine its composition. Unlike other asteroids that are largely carbonaceous (C-type), silicate (S-type), or composed of rock and metal (M-type), Psyche is the only asteroid to date that has been found to have an exposed nickel-iron surface.

Because of its unique nature, scientists have theorized that the metal asteroid is actually the core of a Mars-sized planet that formed during the early Solar System. This planet, they theorize, lost its outer layers after experiencing a massive collision, thus leaving an exposed core behind. The study of this asteroid is therefore expected to reveal a great deal about the interior of terrestrial planets and what powers their magnetic fields.

As David Oh, the mission’s lead project systems engineer, said in a recent NASA press release:

“Psyche is a unique body because it is, by far, the largest metal asteroid out there; it’s about the size of Massachusetts. By exploring Psyche, we’ll learn about the formation of the planets, how planetary cores are formed and, just as important, we’ll be exploring a new type of world. We’ve looked at worlds made of rock, ice and of gas, but we’ve never had an opportunity to look at a metal world, so this is brand new exploration in the classic style of NASA.”

The Psyche missions brings together researchers from Arizona State University and experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For the sake of designing the engine that would send their spacecraft to its destination, the joint Arizona-JPL team turned to NASA’s Glenn Research Center, which has been conducting research into Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) for years.

SEP thrusters are essentially ion-engines that rely on electrically-charged inert gases (like xenon) to provide thrust. Like all Hall Effect ion-engines, this allows the thruster to provide a gentle, non-stop stream of thrust that gradually pushes a spacecraft up to greater and greater speeds. Such a system is ideal for deep-space missions where fuel-efficiency is a must.

As Carol Tolbert, the project manager for Psyche thruster testing at NASA Glenn, explained:

“For deep space missions, the type and amount of fuel required to propel a spacecraft is an important factor for mission planners. A SEP system, like the one used for this mission, operates more efficiently than a conventional chemical propulsion system, which would be impractical for this type of mission.”

The Psyche mission, which will be built jointly by JPL and Space Systems Loral (SSL), will use a SPT-140 Hall effect thruster that relies on solar power to provide electrical charges. The reduced fuel mass of this thruster will allow the mission to enter orbit around the metal asteroid while also providing additional space for the mission’s suite of scientific instruments.

These include a multispectral imager, a magnetometer, and a gamma-ray spectrometer, all of which will help the science team to obtain vital information on the asteroid’s origin, composition and history. The SEP also provides flexibility and robustness in the mission flight plan, since it will allow Psyche to get to its destination with greater speed and efficiency than conventional propulsion would allow for.

To test how the thruster performs during low-power operations, engineers at NASA Glenn placed the thruster into a space environment chamber designed to generate the low-pressures and temperatures it will encounter in space. As Carol explained:

“This mission will be the first to use a Hall effect thruster system beyond lunar orbit, so the tests here at Glenn, which had never been conducted before, were needed to ensure the thruster could perform and operate as expected in the deep space environment.”

Artist’s impression of the surface of 16 Psyche. Credit: Arizona State University / NASA

For decades, the Glenn center has used its compliment of chambers to simulate the conditions missions will encounter in space. However, this test is the first time that engineers have sought to determine how an SEP Hall-Effect thruster would fare. As Oh explained, this test is very important since it will simulate precisely how the spacecraft will fly, and the results have been encouraging so far:

“Glenn has a world-class facility that allowed us to go to very low pressures to simulate the environment the spacecraft will operate in and better understand how our thrusters will perform around Psyche. At first glance, the results confirm our predictions regarding how the thruster will perform, and it looks like everything is working as expected. But, we will continue to refine our models by doing more analysis.”

As the team works towards the mission’s proposed launch – which is scheduled for August 2022 – they will use the data collected at NASA Glenn to update their thruster modeling and incorporate it into mission trajectories. Once the spacecraft reaches its destination – the planned arrival will take place by 2026 – it is expected to reveal a great deal about this unique asteroid.

This data is also likely to teach us much about the history of the Asteroid Belt and the Solar System. If indeed 16 Psyche is the remnant of a Mars-sized planet that formed in the Main Belt, it could cause astronomers to rethink their notions of how the Solar System formed and evolved.

Further Reading: NASA

New Study Says Primordial Asteroid Belt was Empty

Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies a disk of rocks, small bodies and planetoids known as the Main Asteroid Belt. The existence of this Belt was first theorized in the 18th century, based on observations that indicated a regular pattern in the orbits of Solar planets. By the following century, regular discoveries began to be made in the space between Mars and Jupiter, prompting astronomers to theorize where the Belt came from.

For a long time, scientists debated whether the Belt was the remains of a planet that broke up, or remnants left over from the early system that failed to become a planet. But a new study by a pair of astronomers from the University of Bordeaux has offered a different take. According to their theory, the Asteroid Belt began as an empty space which was gradually filled by rocks and debris over time.

For the sake of their study – which recently appeared in the journal Science Advances under the title “The Empty Primordial Asteroid Belt” – astronomers Sean N. Raymond and Andre Izidoro of the University of Bordeaux considered the current scientific consensus, which is that the Main Belt was once much more densely packed and became depleted of mass over time.

Artist’s impression of how the Asteroid Belt could have become filled with C-type and S-type asteroids over time. Credit: Sean Raymond/planetplanet.net

As Dr. Raymond explained to Universe Today via email:

“The standard picture is that the building blocks of the Solar System — what we call planetesimals, generally thought of as 10-100 km-scale bodies — started off in a smooth distribution across the Sun’s planet-forming disk. The problem is, that puts a couple of times Earth’s mass in the asteroid belt, where there is now less than a thousandth of an Earth mass. The challenge in this picture is therefore to understand how the belt lost 99.9% of its mass (but not 100%).”

To this, Dr. Raymond and Dr. Izodoro considered the alternate possibility that perhaps the primordial belt started as an empty space. In accordance with this theory, there were no planetesimals – i.e. Ceres, Vesta, Palla, and Hygeia – orbiting between Mars and Jupiter as there are today. This began as a thought experiment which, as Dr. Raymond admits, sounded a bit crazy at first.

However, he and Dr. Izodoro soon realized that several protoplanetary disks like the one they were envisioning had already been discovered in other star systems. For example, in 2014, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile photographed a planet-forming disk of dust and gas (aka, a protoplanetary disk) in the HL Tauri system, a very young star located about 450 light years away in the Taurus constellation.

As the image (shown below) revealed, the dust in this disk is not smooth, but consists of several broad regions and less dense regions. “The exact explanation for the structure in this disk is still debated but pretty much all models invoke drifting dust,” said Raymond. “And planetesimals form when drifting dust piles up into sufficiently-dense rings. So, dust rings should (we think) produce rings of planetesimals.”

Image of the HL Tau planet-forming disk taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

To test this hypothesis, they constructed a model of the early Solar System which included an empty Main Belt region. As they moved the simulation forward, they found that the formation of the disk was related to the formation of the rocky planets, and would gradually become what we see today. As Raymond indicated:

“What we found is that the growth of the rocky planets is not 100% efficient. A fraction of planetesimals is gravitationally kicked outward and stranded in the asteroid belt. The orbits of captured bodies matches closely those of S-type asteroids. The efficiency of implanting S-types in the belt is quite low, only about 1 in 1000.  However, recall that the belt is almost empty.  There is a total of about 4 hundred-thousandths of an Earth-mass in S-types in the present-day belt.  Our simulations typically implanted a few times that amount. Given that some are lost during later evolution of the Solar System, this matches both the distribution and amount of S-type asteroids in the belt.

They then combined this model with previous work which looked at the growth of Jupiter and Saturn and how this would effect the Solar System. In this study, they showed the C-type asteroids would be deposited in the Belt over time, and that these asteroids would also be responsible for delivering water to Earth. When they combined the distribution of implanted C-type and S-type asteroids with their current work, they found that it matched the present-day distribution of asteroids.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first theory Raymond and Izodoro have come up with to address the Asteroid Belt’s missing mass. Back in 2011, Raymond was a co-author on the study that proposed the Grand Tack model, in which he and his colleagues proposed that Jupiter migrated from its original orbit after it formed. At first, the planet moved closer to Mars’ current orbit, then back out towards where it is today.

Diagram comparing two possible explanations for how the Asteroid Belt formed. Credit: Sean Raymond/planetplanet.net

In the process, the asteroid belt would have been cleared, and Mars would have been deprived of mass, thus leading to its diminutive size – relative to Earth and Venus. This resolved a key problem with classical theories of Asteroid Belt formation, which was known as the “small Mars problem”. In short, all previous simulations of Solar planet formation tended to produce Mars analogs that were far more massive than Mars is today.

However, the Grand Tack hypothesis still contained theoretical uncertainties, which prompted Raymond and Izodoro to consider the the Empty Primordial Belt theory. “Our new result lends credence to an alternate model in which planetesimals never formed in the asteroid belt at all,” he said. “Different pieces of this new alternative model have been developed in recent years, and I think they add up to make a solid alternative to the Grand Tack model.”

Looking ahead, Raymond says that he and Izodoro hope to conduct further studies and simulations to see if either theory can be confirmed or falsified. “That’s the next step,” he said. “Until the next (seemingly-)crazy idea!”

Further Reading: Science Advances, PlanetPlanet

NASA Announces Missions to Explore Early Solar System

It’s a New Year, with new challenges and new opportunities! And NASA, looking to kick things off, has announced the two new missions that will be launching in the coming decade. These robotic missions, named Lucy and Psyche, are intended to help us understand the history of the early Solar System, and will deploy starting in 2021 and 2023, respectively.

While Lucy’s mission is to explore one of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, Psyche will explore a metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche. And between the two of them, it is hoped that they will answer some enduring questions about planetary formation and how the Solar System came to be. More than that, these mission represent historic firsts for NASA and human space exploration.

NASA’s Discovery Program, of which Lucy and Psyche are part, was created in 1992 to compliment their larger “flagship” programs. By bringing scientists and engineers together to design missions, the Discovery Program’s focus has been to maximize scientific research by creating many smaller missions that have shorter development periods and require less in the way of operational resources.

Artist’s concept of the Lucy spacecraft flying by Eurybates, one of the six diverse and scientifically important Trojans it will study. Credit: SwRI

The Lucy mission is scheduled to launch in October of 2021, and is expected to arrive at its first destination (a Main Belt asteroid) in 2025. It will then set course for Jupiter’s Trojans, a group of asteroids that are trapped by Jupiter’s gravity and share its orbit. These asteroids are thought to be relics of the early Solar System; and between 2027 and 2033, Lucy will study six of them.

In addition to being the first mission to explore Jupiter’s Trojan population, Lucy is also of historic importance because of the number of asteroids it will visit. Throughout the course of its mission, it is will investigate six Trojans, which is the total number of Main Belt asteroids that have been studied to date. The nature of these six asteroids is also expected to tell us much about the early history of the Solar System.

As Harold F. Levison – the principal investigator of the Lucy mission from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado – explained during a NASA call-in briefing:

“One of the surprising aspects of this population is their diversity. If we look at them through telescopes on the Earth, we see that they are very different from one other in their color, in their spectra. And so, we believe that’s telling us something about how the Solar System formed and evolved… This diversity in these objects, we believe, are due to the fact that they actually formed in very different regions of the Solar System, with very different physical characteristics. And something occurred in the history of the Solar System where these objects started off at very different distances, but during the formation and evolution of the Solar System, they got moved around and placed in these stable reservoirs near Jupiter’s orbit.”

Illustration of the Lucy spacecraft’s orbit around Jupiter, which will allow it to study its Trojan population. Credit: SwRI

The six Trojans that Lucy is intended investigate were selected because the diversity of their physical characteristics show that they are from different locations throughout the Solar System. As Levison put it, “These small bodies really are the fossils of planet formation, and that’s why we named Lucy after the human ancestor known as Lucy.”

In addition, Lucy will build on the success of missions like New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx., which includes using updated versions of instruments they used to explore Pluto, the Kuiper Belt, and the asteroid Bennu -i.e. the RALPH and LORRI instruments and the OTES instrument. In addition, several members of the New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx science teams will be lending their expertise to the Lucy mission.

Similarly, the Psyche mission will of be immense scientific value since it will visit the only metal asteroid known to exist. This asteroid measures about 210 km (130 mi) in diameter and is believed to be composed entirely of iron and nickel. In this respect, it is similar to Earth’s metallic core, as well as the cores of every terrestrial planet in the Solar System.

It is for this reason why scientists believe it may be the exposed core of a Mars-sized planet. According to this theory, 16 Psyche experienced several major collisions during the early history of the Solar System, which caused it to shed its rocky mantle. The robotic probe will launch in 2023 and is expected to arrive by 2030 – after receiving an Earth gravity-assist maneuver in 2024 and a Mars flyby in 2025.

By measuring its composition, magnetic field, and mapping its surface features, Lucy’s science team hopes to learn more about the history of planetary formation. As Lindy Elkins-Tanton – the Principal Investigator of Psyche and the Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University – said during the NASA call-in briefing:

“Humankind has visited rocky worlds and icy worlds and worlds made of gas. But we have never seen a metal world. Psyche has never been visited or had a picture taken that was more than a point of light. And so, its appearance remains a mystery. This mission will be true exploration and discovery. We think that Psyche is the metal core of a small planet that was destroyed in the high-energy, high-speed, first one-one-hundredth of the age of our Solar System. By visiting Psyche we can literally visit a planetary core the only way humanity can… Psyche let’s us visit inner space by visiting outer space.”

Not only are planetary cores thought to be where magnetic fields originate (which are necessary for the emergence of life), but they are entirely inaccessible to us. The very edge of Earth’s outer core is roughly 2,890 km (1790 mi) from our planet’s surface. But the deepest humanity has ever dug has been to a depth of 12 km (7.5 mi), which took place at the Kola Superdeep Borehole, in Russia.

In addition, within the Earth’s core, temperature and pressure conditions are estimated to reach 5700 K (5400 °C; 9752 °F) and 330 to 360 gigapascals (over three million times normal air pressure). This makes exploring the core of our planet (or any other planet in the Solar System, for that matter) completely impractical. Hence why a robotic mission to a world like Pysche is such an opportunity.

And since Psyche is the only rounded body of metal that is known to exist in the Solar System, the asteroid is as improbably as it is unique. And since no missions have ever taken place to explore its surface, and no pictures exist that can tell us what its surface features would look like, the Psyche mission is sure to shed some serious light on what a metal world looks like.

“What do we think it might look like?” asked Tanton. “Does it have surface sulfur lava flows on its surface? Is it covered with towering cliffs created when solidifying metal shrank and the exterior of the body broke into fault? Is its surface a combination of iron metal and green mineral crystal as iron meteorites are? And what does an impact crater in metal look like? Could its edges or its metal flashes become frozen in the cold of space before they fell back on the surface. We don’t know.”

Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director, expressed enthusiasm for the Discovery 13 and 14 missions in a recent NASA press release:

“These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA’s larger strategy of investigating how the solar system formed and evolved. We’ve explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the sun. Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the solar system, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body. These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold.”

Lucy and Psyche were chosen from five finalists that were selected for further development back in September 2015. These in turn were chosen from 27 mission concepts that were submitted back in November of 2014. Examples of past and present Discovery missions include the Kepler space probe, the Dawn spacecraft, the Mars Pathfinder, and the InSight lander (which is scheduled to launch in 2018).

Further Reading: NASA

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 Unveils New Bright Features on Ceres in Striking Close-Ups

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

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

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

Dawn 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

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