NASA’s Dawn spacecraft releases new images of dwarf planet Ceres

Beautiful new images released by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft show a deeply cratered and variable surface on the dwarf planet Ceres.

In October, Dawn, which has been orbiting Ceres since March 2015, travelled at the lowest altitude in its mission so far — 1,480 kilometres above the surface. It was able to capture unprecedented images of several bright regions located in one particularly interesting region, Occator Crater.

Ceres is found in the asteroid belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is the largest dwarf planet in the region, accounting for 25 per cent of the belt’s total mass.

When Dawn first sent back images of the surface in 2015, scientists were perplexed as to the composition of the bright spots, which they now believe to be formed by a variety of salts.

Occator Crater is about 92 kilometres wide and four kilometres deep. Research suggests that the crater has seen recent geological activity, which has pushed up a salty brine from the subsurface. The material then froze before vaporizing through sublimation.

“This image captures the wonder of soaring above this fascinating, unique world that Dawn is the first to explore,” Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, said in a statement.

Ceres Occator Crater

Prominently featured in the northern hemisphere of Ceres is the Occator Crater, home of the dwarf planet’s intriguing brightest areas. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

A true-to-life colour image of Ceres was also released (planetary images are often released in false colour in order to highlight particular regions). The photograph is a combination of several images taken in 2015 and was produced by the German Aerospace Centre. 

Ceres from Dawn naked eye

This image of Ceres approximates how the dwarf planet’s colours would appear to the naked eye. It combines images taken in 2015 using the red, green and blue spectral filters on board the Dawn spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Since Nov. 4, the spacecraft has embarked on its sixth science mission, which will take it about 7,200 kilometres from the surface of the dwarf planet. 

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