Dawn finale gives sharpest look ever at Ceres' bright spots

05 July, 2018, 17:17 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • To geologists on Earth Occator Crater's Vinalia Faculae region looks a lot like common volcanism. But the bright material here is mostly sodium carbonate also known as soda ash

"Dawn is like a master artist, adding rich details to the otherworldly beauty in its intimate portrait of Ceres", explained Marc Rayman from the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

One of the things that caught the attention of scientists are the glowing white spots at the bottom of the dwarf planet's Occator crater.

A dwarf planet, Ceres has always been the subject of astronomers' interest.

Results from Dawn's previous observations of the crater showed the features were made of sodium carbonate - a type of salt compound commonly found in evaporite deposits on Earth. Passing within a scant 35 kilometres (22 miles) of the surface, Dawn's latest images zoom in on Cerealia Facula, a large deposit of sodium carbonate near the center of the crater. In more than three years of orbiting Ceres, Dawn's lowest altitude before this month was 240 miles (385 kilometers), so the data from this current orbit bring the dwarf planet into much sharper focus.

The Dawn spacecraft ("Dawn"), launched to study the asteroid Vesta and the planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, was sent to earth close-UPS of the dwarf planet. The photographs revealed odd bright spots on the surface, which drew immediate attention from the scientific community.

Dawn's scientific sunset is expected to occur later this year when its thruster fuel runs out, but even then, the probe will continue to circle Ceres in a stable orbit - to preserve the dwarf planet's surface in pristine condition for any life-detection probes that may follow. They could also determine if the carbonates found on Ceres came from a shallow, sub-surface reservoir of water rich in minerals or from a deeper source of water that moved upwards and seeped through cracks. They could appear as the result of shock-heating substances that were previously beneath the surface and appear as a result of crystallization and salt saturated water.


According to NASA, researchers will employ the spacecraft's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer as well as other instruments (which include a gamma ray and neutron detector as well as a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer) to study the dwarf planet's features in greater detail.

The Dawn probe started its orbit of Vesta in June 2011 and wrapped up in September 2012.

To snap this picture, Dawn fired up its ion engine and plunged to a depth of about 21 miles (34 kilometers) of Ceres' surface.

Dawn turned on its innovative ion engines for the first time on October 6, 2007.

"The first views of Ceres obtained by Dawn beckoned us with a single, blinding bright spot", Dawn principal investigator Carol Raymond, also of JPL, said in the same statement. Mission controllers look forward to continued science from Dawn, but they have completed all planned firing sessions of the industrious engines.

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