Watch: Dwarf planet Ceres flyby

1 Feb 2016

Dwarf planet Ceres, as viewed from NASA’s Dawn renderings to highlight differences in surface materials, via NASA/JPL

Dawn’s mission to study dwarf planet Ceres has proved so comprehensive thus far that NASA has been able to create a very detailed animation of the crater-filled surface.

Dawn’s pursuit of Ceres has been one of NASA’s many notable missions of the past decade, with mystery and intrigue surrounding a dwarf planet that, at first, seemed no more amazing than any other.

Very quickly, though, that changed, as bright white lights emanated from Ceres, posing many questions and a handful of plausible answers. Many now think that these white points – visible on the Occator crater – are sodium mounds. Massive ones at that, as for them to be visible from such a distance is remarkable.

Dawn has been tracking Ceres for around 11 months now, its rendezvous with the largest body in the main asteroid belt of our solar system (between Mars and Jupiter) coming last March. The spacecraft is currently in its final and lowest mapping orbit, at about 385km from the surface – Dawn originally orbited asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012.

The research is piling up

Now such is the suite of imagery available to the NASA team, a visualisation has been created to show the surface of the dwarf planet. The movie shows Ceres in enhanced color, which helps to highlight subtle differences in the appearance of surface materials.

Scientists believe areas with shades of blue contain younger, fresher material, including flows, pits and cracks.

NASA has named features on Ceres after earthly agricultural spirits, deities and festivals. So, this video “emphasises the most prominent craters”, with Occator and the tall conical mountain Ahuna Mons.

“The simulated overflight shows the wide range of crater shapes that we have encountered on Ceres. The viewer can observe the sheer walls of the crater Occator, and also Dantu and Yalode, where the craters are a lot flatter,” said Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn mission scientist at the German Aerospace Centre, which helped create the animation.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic