NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has taken its closest images yet of the dwarf planet Ceres. Sadly, they don’t reveal any more about the mysterious bright spots on the surface – but they do show a stunning new view of a pyramid-like structure, seen above.
The mountain in the image towers about six kilometers (four miles) above the surface. Its slopes are brightly streaked while its perimeter on the surface has a sharp definition. Interestingly there is no debris around the base of the mountain, and it also seems to stand alone, rather than being part of a mountain range.
In the other images, the spacecraft revealed a mountain ridge on Ceres, and also a large crater named for the Germanic goddess Gaue. Dawn has also been using its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer to gather data on the minerals that can be found on the surface of Ceres.
The mountain range is seen at the lower left of this image. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
Dawn, which arrived in orbit around Ceres in March this year after visiting the protoplanet Vesta in 2011 and 2012, is currently orbiting 1,470 kilometers (915 miles) above the surface. Over the next few months, it will get closer and closer, reaching its lowest altitude – 375 kilometers (230 miles) – in October. At this height, we can expect even more stunning images.
In its current orbit, it takes Dawn 11 days to capture images of the whole surface of Ceres over the course of 14 orbits. In the next two months, the entire surface will be mapped six times. Images at this height have a resolution of 140 meters (460 feet) per pixel, and each covers less than one percent of the surface.
"Dawn is performing flawlessly in this new orbit as it conducts its ambitious exploration," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, in a statement. "The spacecraft's view is now three times as sharp as in its previous mapping orbit, revealing exciting new details of this intriguing dwarf planet."
But while these images are all well and good, let’s be honest: we all want to know what caused the mysterious bright spots on the surface. Are they caused by ice, salt flats, or something else? We’ll have to wait to find out.
Image in text: Gaue crater is the large crater at the bottom. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.