Ceres Resembles Saturn’s Icy Moons

Topographic elevation map of Ceres showing some newly-named craters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

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

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

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

Check out a rotation video of Ceres’ topography below:

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

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

See a full list of Ceres’ named features here.

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

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

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

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

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

Source: NASA

Top 9 Weird Asteroid Names (and 1 Awesome Asteroid Moon Name)

An illustration of the Jabberwocky first published in 1871. Credit: Public domain/Wikipedia

Cats, celebrities and fictional creatures all have a home in the asteroid belt. That’s because the people that found these asteroids often have the privilege of naming the minor planets after anything they want — with a few guidelines, of course.

So what are the rules? According to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, all “minor planets” should adhere to the following guidelines:

– 16 characters long, or less;

– One word, if possible;

– Pronounceable, non-offensive and not too similar to names of other minor planets or natural  planetary satellites;

– If named after a military/political persona, 100 years must have passed since the person died or the event occurred;

– No commercial names;

– Names of pets are strongly discouraged. (More on that later.)

Below are some of the more whimsical names of asteroids. What’s awesome about them is how willing the discoverer was to show his or her light side on what must have been a solemn occasion for them.

9) James Bond (9007): This actually isn’t too surprising, since Bond has been to space a few times, most notably attempting “re-entry” during the film Moonraker. Still, it’s a fair stretch from flying the space shuttle to navigating the asteroid belt.

8) Odysseus (1143): This ever-patient sailor probably would have been unhappy with a trip into space in addition to seeing his friends die in war, fighting with the Cyclops and getting stranded far from home.

7) Beowulf (38086): Named after the hero in an Old English epic poem. He’ll be handy in case we come across any Grendel-like creatures in outer space.

6) Tomhanks (12818) and (5) Megryan (8353): Cue the “sleepless in space” jokes, which accelerated in other media when the two asteroids came within 40 million miles of each other in 2011 (relatively close for asteroids.) That said, Tom Hanks is a well-known advocate of the space program. He starred in Apollo 13, was prominent behind the scenes in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon miniseries and is a friend of astronauts.

4) Apophis (99942): This asteroid has come under a lot of scrutiny because for a while, astronomers weren’t clear on if it would hit the Earth. But we know now it is definitely not a threat. The asteroid is actually named after a nemesis character in the sci-fi series Stargate SG-1.

3) Monty Python (13681): The famed British comedy troupe now has a permanent monument to their silly walks and elderberry insults in space. Not only that, but each of the members of the group has an asteroid named after him.

2) Mr. Spock (2309): This asteroid was not named after the famous Star Trek character, but after the cat of discoverer James B. Gibson. The feline, like its namesake, was also “imperturbable, logical, intelligent, and had pointed ears,” according to a notice published in September 1985 in the Minor Planet Center.

1) Jabberwock (7470): In the ultimate expression of gyring and gimbling in the wabe, Lewis Carroll’s famous Jabberwocky poem has a namesake. We just hope it didn’t inherit the jaws and claws.

We also wanted to mention another named asteroid, even though we don’t think it has a weird name at all: Asteroid 158092 Frasercain, named after our esteemed publisher of Universe Today. This asteroid was officially designated on August 21, 2008. You can read about it here.

Also, while looking for silly asteroid names, we stumbled across one that is quite meaningful and perhaps the most appropriate space name ever.

45 Eugenia has a moon called Petit-Prince, honoring  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. The children’s book follows the exploit of a boy who lived on an asteroid and explored other asteroids, as well as Earth.

You can explore the database for yourself here.

Help Name Pluto’s Newest Moons!

Pluto's known system of moons (NASA/ESA/M. Showalter))

Today marks seven months since the announcement of Pluto’s fifth moon and over a year and a half since the discovery of the one before that. But both moons still have letter-and-number designations, P5 and P4, respectively… not very imaginative, to say the least, and not really fitting into the pantheon of mythologically-named worlds in our Solar System.

Today, you can help change that.

According to the New Horizons research team, after the discovery of P4 in June 2011 it was decided to wait to see if any more moons were discovered in order to choose names that fit together as a pair, while a*lso following accepted IAU naming practices. Now, seven months after the announcement of P5, we think a decision is in order… and so does the P4/P5 Discovery Team at the SETI Institute.

"Hey, I can be democratic about this!"
“Hey, I can be democratic about all this!”

Today, SETI Senior Research Scientist Mark Showalter revealed a new poll site, Pluto Rocks, where visitors can place their votes on a selection of names for P4 and P5 — or even write in a suggestion of their own. In line with IAU convention these names are associated with the Greek and Roman mythology surrounding Pluto/Hades and his underworld-dwelling minions.

“In 1930, a little girl named Venetia Burney suggested that Clyde Tombaugh name his newly discovered planet ‘Pluto.’ Tombaugh liked the idea and the name stuck. I like to think that we are doing honor to Tombaugh’s legacy by now opening up the naming of Pluto’s two tiniest known moons to everyone.”

– Mark Showalter, SETI Institute

As of the time of this writing, the ongoing results look like this:

Results of Pluto Rocks voting as of Feb. 11, 2013 at 10 am EST (15:00 UT)
Results of Pluto Rocks voting as of Feb. 11, 2013 at 10 am EST (15:00 UT)

Do you like where the voting is headed? Are you hellishly opposed? Go place your vote now and make your opinion count in the naming of these two distant worlds!

(After all, New Horizons will be visiting Pluto in just under two and a half years, and she really should know how to greet the family.)

Voting ends at noon EST on Monday, February 25th, 2013.

The SETI team welcomes you to submit your vote every day, but only once per day so that voting is fair.

UPDATE: On Feb. 25, the final day of voting, the tally is looking like this:

PlutoRocks results as of Feb. 25, 2013 - Vulcan is in the lead, thanks to publicity from Mr. William Shatner
PlutoRocks results as of Feb. 25, 2013 – Vulcan is in the lead, thanks to publicity from Mr. William Shatner

Thanks in no small part to a bit of publicity on Twitter by Captain Kirk himself, Mr. William Shatner (and support by Leonard Nimoy) “Vulcan” has made the list and warped straight to the lead. Will SETI and the IAU honor such Trek fan support with an official designation? We shall soon find out…