The spacecraft has been using its ion propulsion system to maneuver to its second mapping orbit at Ceres, which it will reach on June 6. The spacecraft will remain at a distance of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) from the dwarf planet until June 30. Afterward, it will make its way to lower orbits.
A new view of Ceres, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 23, shows finer detail is becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) with a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. The image is part of a sequence taken for navigational purposes.
After transmitting these images to Earth on May 23, Dawn resumed ion-thrusting toward its second mapping orbit. On June 3, Dawn will enter this orbit and spend the rest of the month observing Ceres from 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above the surface. Each orbit during this time will be about three days, allowing the spacecraft to conduct an intensive study of Ceres.
Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct solar system targets. It studied the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.
December 9, 2015
New Clues to Ceres' Bright Spots and Origins
Ceres reveals some of its well-kept secrets in two new studies in the journal Nature, thanks to data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. They include highly anticipated insights about mysterious bright features found all over the dwarf planet's surface.
In one study, scientists identify this bright material as a kind of salt. The second study suggests the detection of ammonia-rich clays, raising questions about how Ceres formed.
About the Bright Spots
Ceres has more than 130 bright areas, and most of them are associated with impact craters. Study authors, led by Andreas Nathues at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, write that the bright material is consistent with a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite. A different type of magnesium sulfate is familiar on Earth as Epsom salt.
Nathues and colleagues, using images from Dawn's framing camera, suggest that these salt-rich areas were left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids would have unearthed the mixture of ice and salt, they say.
A New Look at Occator
The surface of Ceres, whose average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers), is generally dark -- similar in brightness to fresh asphalt -- study authors wrote. The bright patches that pepper the surface represent a large range of brightness, with the brightest areas reflecting about 50 percent of sunlight shining on the area. But there has not been unambiguous detection of water ice on Ceres; higher-resolution data are needed to settle this question.
The inner portion of a crater called Occator contains the brightest material on Ceres. Occator itself is 60 miles (90 kilometers) in diameter, and its central pit, covered by this bright material, measures about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide and 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) deep. Dark streaks, possibly fractures, traverse the pit. Remnants of a central peak, which was up to 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) high, can also be seen.
With its sharp rim and walls, and abundant terraces and landslide deposits, Occator appears to be among the youngest features on Ceres. Dawn mission scientists estimate its age to be about 78 million years old.
Study authors write that some views of Occator appear to show a diffuse haze near the surface that fills the floor of the crater. This may be associated with observations of water vapor at Ceres by the Herschel space observatory that were reported in 2014. The haze seems to be present in views during noon, local time, and absent at dawn and dusk, study authors write. This suggests that the phenomenon resembles the activity at the surface of a comet, with water vapor lifting tiny particles of dust and residual ice. Future data and analysis may test this hypothesis and reveal clues about the process causing this activity.
The Importance of Ammonia
In the second Nature study, members of the Dawn science team examined the composition of Ceres and found evidence for ammonia-rich clays. They used data from the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, a device that looks at how various wavelengths of light are reflected by the surface, allowing minerals to be identified.
Ammonia ice by itself would evaporate on Ceres today, because the dwarf planet is too warm. However, ammonia molecules could be stable if present in combination with (i.e. chemically bonded to) other minerals.
The presence of ammoniated compounds raises the possibility that Ceres did not originate in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where it currently resides, but instead might have formed in the outer solar system. Another idea is that Ceres formed close to its present position, incorporating materials that drifted in from the outer solar system - near the orbit of Neptune, where nitrogen ices are thermally stable.
In comparing the spectrum of reflected light from Ceres to meteorites, scientists found some similarities. Specifically, they focused on the spectra, or chemical fingerprints, of carbonaceous chondrites, a type of carbon-rich meteorite thought to be relevant analogues for the dwarf planet. But these are not good matches for all wavelengths that the instrument sampled, the team found. In particular, there were distinctive absorption bands, matching mixtures containing ammoniated minerals, associated with wavelengths that can't be observed from Earth-based telescopes.
The scientists note another difference is that these carbonaceous chondrites have bulk water contents of 15 to 20 percent, while Ceres' content is as much as 30 percent.
The study also shows that daytime surface temperatures on Ceres span from minus 136 degrees to minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit (180 to 240 Kelvin). The maximum temperatures were measured in the equatorial region. The temperatures at and near the equator are generally too high to support ice at the surface for a long time, study authors say, but data from Dawn's next orbit will reveal more details.
As of this week, Dawn has reached its final orbital altitude at Ceres, about 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface of the dwarf planet. In mid-December, Dawn will begin taking observations from this orbit, including images at a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel, infrared, gamma ray and neutron spectra, and high-resolution gravity data.
December 10, 2015
Bright Spot Locations on Ceres
This map of Ceres, made from images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, shows the locations of about 130 bright areas across the dwarf planet's surface, highlighted in blue. Most of these bright areas are associated with craters.
Three insets zoom in on a few areas of interest. Occator Crater, containing the brightest area on Ceres, is shown at top left; Oxo Crater, the second-brightest feature on Ceres, is at top right.
In a paper published in the Dec. 10, 2015, issue the journal Nature, Dawn mission scientists identify what they believe to be diffuse hazes at both Occator and Oxo. They believe the hazes appear when the sun shines on these craters, possibly from the sublimation of ice.
A typical Ceres crater with bright material that does not appear to have remaining ice is shown at bottom. The bright material in this crater and others appears to originate from mineral salts that may have once been mixed with water ice, but dried up over time, scientists wrote in the same paper.
December 22, 2015
Dawn's Lowest Orbit: Near South Pole
This part of Ceres, near the south pole, has such long shadows because, from the perspective of this location, the sun is near the horizon. At the time this image was taken, the sun was 4 degrees north of the equator. If you were standing this close to Ceres' south pole, the sun would never get high in the sky during the course of a nine-hour Cerean day.
The spacecraft took this image in its low-altitude mapping orbit from an approximate distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres.