The latest photos of the dwarf planet Ceres are in. And they are incredible. Sorry Occator crater (where the bright spots are located), NASA’s Dawn spacecraft zoomed in on different craters.
Here’s a close-up look at Kupalo Crater.
Image resolution is 120 feet per pixel. Dawn scientists believe Kupalo Crater is one of the youngest craters on Ceres. You can see bright streaks around the rim of the crater. The leading theory for what these bright areas are is some type of salt. The crater’s flat floor is likely the result of impact melt and debris. Are the bright areas related to the bright spots found in Occator crater? The Dawn team will be studying the two craters more closely to answer that question.
“This crater and its recently-formed deposits will be a prime target of study for the team as Dawn continues to explore Ceres in its final mapping phase,” said Paul Schenk, a member of the Dawn science team.
Dawn entered its final mapping orbit on Dec. 15, 2015. Right now, the spacecraft orbits just 230 miles above Ceres’ surface. Dawn will stay in this mapping orbit, dubbed Low-Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO), until June 30.
The next crater Dawn zoomed in on is Dantu Crater.
Dawn is so close, it can’t capture the entire 78-mile wide crater in the image above. The fractured floor reminds NASA scientists of one the Moon’s young craters, Tycho. Both have similar fractures on their crater floors. What’s causing them? Dawn’s science team believes it could be from cooling impact melt. Another possible reason is the crater floor pushed upwards after it formed.
Check out Messor Crater.
NASA describes a “large lobe-shaped flow” seen at the top part of Messor’s Crater floor. This ‘flow’ was created when a large chunk of material was ejected from a younger crater just north of the rim.
Finally, we have Cerean Crater.
This is the most unique looking crater of this bunch. Ridges and steep slopes, called scarps, cover the crater’s floor. Dawn scientists point to a partial collapse during the crater’s formation as a possible reason behind Cerean’s unique appearance.
Dawn’s final mapping orbit isn’t just to take incredible pictures. The instrument package on board the spacecraft is busy figuring out everything it can about Ceres’ surface. Visible and infrared mapping spectrometers will look at how different wavelengths of light are reflected by the dwarf planet. That will help scientists definitively identify minerals on the surface. Take the bright spots. Scientists are pretty sure they are salts, but the spectrometers should give them a definitive answer in the coming months.
A gamma ray and neutron detector on board Ceres will also assist in identifying materials on the surface. It will also take a deeper look at Ceres’ interior.
Chris Russell, the principal investigator for the Dawn mission, expected to be blown away by Ceres and he wasn’t disappointed. “Everywhere we look in these new low-altitude observations, we see amazing landforms that speak to the unique character of this amazing world.”
Dawn in 2016
The next six months will be full of high-resolution images and data collection. But at some point in June, Dawn’s mission will come to an end. Once Dawn runs out of hydrazine fuel, the mission is done. Without it, Dawn can’t point its instruments, antenna or solar arrays.
Dawn won’t crash, though. Not yet. Because of the possibility of water ice on Ceres, the NASA Planetary Protection Office doesn’t want the spacecraft to hit Ceres for at least 20 years. The Dawn team upped it to at least 50 years.