NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is slowly moving further away from Ceres, but that doesn’t mean it can’t snap some incredible pictures of the dwarf planet.
In this latest release of images from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), there is a close-up shot of Ceres’ most famous feature – the Occator Crater – which hosts a curious bright spot at its center that is believed to be a halovolcano, a salt-spewing geological feature possibly triggered by the impact that formed the crater.
Occator is 92 kilometers (57 miles) wide and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) deep, quite the scar on an object that is only 945 kilometers (587 miles) across. Dawn was at an altitude of 1,480 kilometers (920 miles) when it took this side image of the Occator Crater, showing its central bright spot, other reflective areas, and the ridge of the crater illuminated by the Sun at an angle not documented before.
The new view of Occator Crater with the halovolcano in the center. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
"This image captures the wonder of soaring above this fascinating, unique world that Dawn is the first to explore," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, in a statement.
Dawn reached that altitude in early October, after a climb that started in August. The probe was flying closer to the surface of Ceres than the ISS is to Earth, which allowed Dawn to take some incredibly detailed images of the dwarf planet.
The second released picture (top image) is actually from 2015 as Dawn was approaching Ceres. By combining the camera’s red, green, and blue filters, the scientists were able to recreate what the dwarf planet would look like to the human eye.
The spacecraft is now moving to its sixth science orbit, at an altitude of 7,200 kilometers (4,500 miles), where it will refine previously collected measurements. The probe started the climb on November 4 and it will reach the new orbit in early December.
Dawn moves thanks to an ion engine that, while it provides very little thrust, can be fired for awhile with only a modest amount of fuel. It is incredibly reliable, but it takes a long time to move the craft.
Dawn is currently in its extended mission after having successfully visited the asteroid Vest between 2011 and 2012, and then traveling to Ceres where it has been orbiting for almost two years.