Dawn Gets Right in Between the Sun and Ceres and Takes this Video

The Dawn probe continues to excite and amaze! Since it achieved orbit around Ceres in March of 2015, it has been sending back an impressive stream of data and images on the protoplanet. In addition to capturing pictures of the mysterious “bright spots” on Ceres’ surface, it has also revealed evidence of cryovolcanism and the possibility of an interior ocean that could even support life.

Most recently, the Dawn probe conducted observations of the protoplanet while it was at opposition – directly between the Sun and Ceres surface – on April 29th. From this position, the craft was able to capture pictures of the Occator Crater, which contains the brightest spot on Ceres. These images were then stitched together by members of the mission team in order to create a short movie that showcases the view Dawn had of the planet.

The images were snapped when the Dawn probe was at an altitude of about 20,000 km (12,000 mi) from Ceres’ surface. As you can see (by clicking on the image below), the short movie shows the protoplanet rotating so that the Occator Crater is featured prominently. This crater is unmistakable thanks to the way its bright spots (two side by side white dots) stand out from the bland, grey landscape.

NASA movie made of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, from a position exactly between the sun and Ceres’ surface. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

This increase in brightness is attributable to the size of grains of material on the surface, as well as their degree of porosity. As scientists have known for some time (thanks to the Dawn mission data) these bright spots are salt deposits, which stand out because they are more reflective than their surrounding environment. But for the sake of movie, this contrast was enhanced further in order to highlight the difference.

The observations were conducted as part of the latest phase of the Dawn mission, where it is recording cosmic rays in order to refine its earlier measurements of Ceres’ underground environment. In order to conduct these readings, the probe has been placed through an intricate set of maneuvers designed to shift its orbit around Ceres. Towards the end of April, this placed the probe in a position directly between the Sun and Ceres.

Based on previous data collected by ground-based telescopes and spacecraft that have viewed planetary bodies at opposition, the Dawn team predicted that Ceres would appear brighter from this vantage point. But rather than simply providing for some beautiful images of Ceres’ surface, the pictures are expected to reveal new details of the surface that are not discernible by visual inspection.

A view of Ceres in natural colour, pictured by the Dawn spacecraft in May 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/Planetary Society/Justin Cowart

For more than two years now, the Dawn probe has been observing Ceres from a range of illumination angles that exceed those made of just about any other body in the Solar System. These has provided scientists with the opportunity to gain new insights into its surface features, properties, and the forces which shape it. Such observations will come in very handy as they continue to probe Ceres’ surface for hints of what lies beneath.

For years, scientists have been of the opinion that Ceres’ harbors an interior ocean that could support life. In fact, the Dawn probe has already gathered spectral data that hinted at the presence of organic molecules on the surface, which were reasoned to have been kicked up when a meteor impacted the surface. Characterizing the surface and subsurface environments will help determine if this astronomical body really could support life.

At present, the Dawn probe is maintaining an elliptical orbit that is taking it farther away from Ceres. As of May 11th, NASA reported that the probe was in good health and functioning well, despite the malfunction that took place in April where it’s third reaction wheel failed. The Dawn mission has already been extended, and it is expected to operate around Ceres until 2017.

Further Reading: NASA

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.

Invest a Night in Vesta

The brightest asteroid visible from Earth prowls across Cetus the Whale this month. Vesta shines at magnitude +6.3, right at the naked eye limit for observers with pristine skies, but easily coaxed into view with any pair of binoculars. With the moon now gone from the evening sky, you can start your search tonight. 

4 Vesta - its formal designation as the fourth asteroid discovered - travels along a short arc just south of the easily-found star Iota Ceti this month. Use this map to help you find Deneb Kaitos, Cetus' brightest star, and from their to Iota Ceti and Vesta. Source: Stellarium
Facing southeast around 10 p.m. local time in early October. 4 Vesta — its formal designation as the fourth asteroid discovered — travels along a short arc south of the easily-found star, Iota Ceti. Shoot a line from the Square of Pegasus south to arrive at Deneb Kaitos, Cetus’ brightest star, and from their to Iota Ceti and Vesta. Detailed map below. Source: Stellarium

Vesta came to opposition on September 28 and remains well-placed for viewing through early winter. Today’s it’s 134 million miles (225 million km) from Earth or about 5 million miles farther the Mars’ average distance from us. Although it’s one of the largest asteroids in the inner asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter with a diameter of 326 miles (525 km), it never appears larger than a point of light even in many professional telescopes. Your binocular view will be as satisfying as the one through Mt. Palomar.

A spectacular central peak more than 14 miles high rises from the 310-mile-wide crater Rheasilvia. Credit: NASA
Like an inverted belly button, a spectacular central peak more than 14 miles high rises from the 310-mile-wide crater Rheasilvia. Credit: NASA

Discovered by the German astronomer Heinrich Olbers in March 1807, Vesta was named for the Roman goddess of home and hearth. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, currently in orbit around another asteroid, Ceres, visited Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012, taking thousands of close-up images and measuring the mineral make-up of its soil and crust. We learned a few things while we were there:

  • Vesta is differentiated into crust, mantle and core just like the bigger planets are. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear it described as a “protoplanet”, the first of its kind discovered in our solar system.
  • A class of igneous meteorites fallen to Earth called Howardites, eucrites and diogenites (HED-meteorites) were confirmed as actual pieces of the asteroid that found their way here after being blasted into space by impact.
  • Some of the meteorites / rocks that pelted the asteroid from elsewhere in the solar system are water-rich.
  • Vesta’s covered in craters like the moon
  • A staggering-large 310-mile-wide (500 km) impact crater named Rheasilvia marks its south pole. The basin’s central peak rises to 14.3 miles (23 km), more than twice the height of Mt. Everest.
  • Gullies found on its surface suggest ancient water flows.
Cornelia Crater on the large asteroid Vesta. The crater is about 4 to 5 million years old. On the right is an inset image showing an example of curved gullies, indicated by the short white arrows, and a fan-shaped deposit, indicated by long white arrows. The inset image is about 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) wide.
Cornelia Crater on the asteroid Vesta. The crater is about 4 to 5 million years old. On the right is an inset image showing an example of curved gullies that may have been carved by water, indicated by the short white arrows, and a fan-shaped deposit, indicated by long white arrows. The inset image is about 0.62 miles (1 km) wide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

You can see it all in your mind’s eye the next clear night. For skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes, Vesta climbs into good view around 10 o’clock in early October and 8 o’clock by month’s end. If you’re familiar with gangly Cetus, you can start with the 2nd magnitude star Deneb Kaitos, the brightest star in the constellation. If not, begin your Vestan voyage from the Great Square in Pegasus, high in the southeastern sky.

Once you've arrived at Deneb Kaitos, locate Iota Ceti, 10 degrees to the northwest. The star makes finding Vesta easy in binoculars this month. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Once you’ve arrived at Deneb Kaitos, locate Iota Ceti, 10 degrees to the northwest. The star makes finding Vesta easy in binoculars this month. Stars shown to magnitude +7. North is up and the asteroid’s position is marked every 5 days  at 10 p.m. Vesta fades slowly during the month to mag. 6.8 by Nov. 1. CDT. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Drop a line through the two stars along the left side of the Square and continue it down toward the southern horizon. You’ll run right into DK. Now elevate your gaze — or aim your binoculars — one outstretched fist (10°) or about two binocular fields of view above and right of Deneb Kaitos to find Iota Ceti (mag. 3.6).

Once you’ve got Iota, the asteroid will be in your field of view close by. Use the detailed chart to pinpoint its location with respect to Iota. Easy, right? Well, I hope so. Bon voyage to Vesta!

Should This Alien World Even Exist? This Young Disk Could Challenge Planet-Formation Theories

Take a close look at the blurry image above. See that gap in the cloud? That could be a planet being born some 176 light-years away from Earth. It’s a small planet, only 6 to 28 times Earth’s mass.

That’s not even the best part.

This alien world, if we can confirm it, shouldn’t be there according to conventional planet-forming theory.

The gap in the image above — taken by the Hubble Space Telescope — probably arose when a planet under construction swept through the dust and debris in its orbit, astronomers said.

That’s not much of a surprise (at first blush) given what we think we know about planet formation. You start with a cloud of debris and gas swirling around a star, then gradually the bits and pieces start colliding, sticking together and growing bigger into small rocks, bigger ones and eventually, planets or gas giant planet cores.

But there’s something puzzling astronomers this time around: this planet is a heck of a long way from its star, TW Hydrae, about twice Pluto’s distance from the sun. Given that alien systems’ age, that world shouldn’t have formed so quickly.

An illustration of TW Hydrae's disk in comparison with that of Earth's solar system. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
An illustration of TW Hydrae’s disk in comparison with that of Earth’s solar system. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Astronomers believe that Jupiter took about 10 million years to form at its distance away from the sun. This planet near TW Hydrae should take 200 times longer to form because the alien world is moving slower, and has less debris to pick up.

But something must be off, because TW Hydrae‘s system is believed to be only 8 million years old.

“There has not been enough time for a planet to grow through the slow accumulation of smaller debris. Complicating the story further is that TW Hydrae is only 55 percent as massive as our sun,” NASA stated, adding it’s the first time we’ve seen a gap so far away from a low-mass star.

The lead researcher put it even more bluntly: “Typically, you need pebbles before you can have a planet. So, if there is a planet and there is no dust larger than a grain of sand farther out, that would be a huge challenge to traditional planet formation models,” stated John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Protoplanet Hypothesis
Like a raindrop forming in a cloud, a star forms in a diffuse gas cloud in deep space. As the star grows, its gravitational pull draws in dust and gas from the surrounding molecular cloud to form a swirling disk called a “protoplanetary disk.” This disk eventually further consolidates to form planets, moons, asteroids and comets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At this point, you would suppose the astronomers are seriously investigating other theories. One alternative brought up in the press release: perhaps part of the disc collapsed due to gravitational instability. If that is the case, a planet could come to be in only a few thousand years, instead of several million.

“If we can actually confirm that there’s a planet there, we can connect its characteristics to measurements of the gap properties,” Debes stated. “That might add to planet formation theories as to how you can actually form a planet very far out.”

A rare double transit of Jupiter's moon Ganymede (top) and Io on Jan. 3, 2013. Here, the sun is shining from the left causing shadows cast by the moons to fall onto the planet's cloud tops. Credit: Damian Peach
A rare double transit of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede (top) and Io on Jan. 3, 2013. Here, the sun is shining from the left causing shadows cast by the moons to fall onto the planet’s cloud tops. Credit: Damian Peach

There’s a trick with the “direct collapse” theory, though: astronomers believe it takes a bunch of matter that is one to two times more massive than Jupiter before a collapse can occur to form a planet.

Recall that this world is no more than 28 times the mass of Earth, as best as we can figure. Well, Jupiter itself is 318 times more massive than Earth.

There are also intriguing results about the gap. Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — which is designed to look at dusty regions around young stars — found that the dust grains in this system, orbiting nearby the gap, are still smaller than the size of a grain of sand.

Astronomers plan to use ALMA and the James Webb Space Telescope, which should launch in 2018, to get a better look. In the meantime, the results will be published in the June 14 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: HubbleSite

Ancient Impacts Stained Vesta with Carbon-Rich Material

Composite-color 3D image of Cornelia crater on Vesta (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Ever since arriving at Vesta in July 2011, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been capturing high-resolution images of the protoplanet’s surface, revealing a surprisingly varied and complex terrain covered in ridges, hills, grooves and, of course, craters of many different sizes and ages. Many of Vesta’s largest craters exhibit strange dark stains and splotches within and around them, some literally darker than coal. These stains were a puzzle to scientists when they were first seen, but the latest research now confirms that they may actually be the remains of the ancient impacts that caused them: dark deposits left by the myriad of carbon-rich objects that struck Vesta over the past four-and-a-half billion years.

Even though Vesta had a completely molten surface 4.5 billion years ago it’s believed that its crust likely solidified within a few million years, making the 530-km (329-mile) -wide world a literal time capsule for events taking place in the inner Solar System since then… one reason why Vesta was chosen as a target for the Dawn mission.

714973main_pia16632-43_946-710Using data acquired by Dawn during its year in orbit around Vesta, a team led by researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the University of North Dakota investigated the dark material seen lining the edges of large impact basins located on the protoplanet’s southern hemisphere. What they determined was that much of the material was delivered during an initial large, low-velocity impact event 2–3 billion years ago that created the largest basin — Veneneia — and was then partially covered by a later impact that created the smaller basin that’s nearly centered on Vesta’s southern pole — Rheasilva.

“The evidence suggests that the dark material on Vesta is rich in carbonaceous material and was brought there by collisions with smaller asteroids.”

– Vishnu Reddy, lead author, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the University of North Dakota


Dawn framing camera images of dark material on Vesta. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Subsequent smaller asteroid impacts over the millennia likely brought more carbonaceous material to Vesta’s surface, both delivering it as well as revealing any that may have existed beneath brighter surfaces.

Read more: Asteroid’s Unusual Light and Dark Crater


The dark, carbon-rich material observed on Vesta by Dawn also seems to match up with similarly dark clasts found in meteorites that have landed on Earth which are thought to have originated from Vesta.

“Our analysis of the dark material on Vesta and comparisons with laboratory studies of HED meteorites for the first time proves directly that these meteorites are fragments from Vesta,” said Lucille Le Corre from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, another lead author of the study.

If evidence of such collisions between worlds can be found on Vesta, it’s likely that similar events were occurring all across the inner solar system during its early days, providing a clue as to how carbon-rich organic material was delivered to Earth — and possibly Mars as well. Such material — the dark stains we see today lining Vesta’s craters — would have helped form the very building blocks of life on our planet.

The team’s findings were published in the November/December issue of the journal Icarus.

Read more on the Max Planck Institute’s news page here, and on the NASA release here. Learn more about the Dawn mission in the video below, narrated by Leonard Nimoy.

By Dawn’s Early Light


Sunrise on Vesta highlights the asteroid’s varied surface textures in this image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, released on Monday, Feb. 20. The image was taken on Dec. 18 with Dawn’s Framing Camera (FC).

Just as the low angle of  early morning sunlight casts long shadows on Earth, sunrise on Vesta has the same effect — although on Vesta it’s not trees and buildings that are being illuminated but rather deep craters and chains of pits!

The steep inner wall of a crater is seen at lower right with several landslides visible, its outer ridge cutting a sharp line.

Chains of pits are visible in the center of the view. These features are the result of ejected material from an impact that occurred outside of the image area.

Other lower-profile, likely older craters remain in shadow.

Many of these features would appear much less dramatic with a high angle of illumination, but they really shine brightest in dawn’s light.

See the full image release on the Dawn mission site here.

Image credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA