Dawn’s new Ceres photos reveal even more detail

13 Jan 2016

An older representation of Ceres' Occator Crater in false colors. All images via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Areas of dwarf planet Ceres, which have captured the imagination of astronomers everywhere in the past year, have just been captured in yet more detail. Is that white stuff really salt?

Stargazing Live on BBC last night (January 13) alluded to Ceres’ bright spots, those white points that have caused no end of discussion throughout scientist circles since their discovery.

Standing out, visible from hundreds of miles above the surface, what were they, we wondered? According to Brian Cox, they’re just salt. Nothing amazing. Just salt. But NASA isn’t as committal, it seems, merely saying it “could” be salt.

With a bunch of new images downloaded from the Dawn spacecraft, perhaps now greater research can go into these anomalies.

Dawn Ceres

The image of Ceres’ Kupalo Crater shows more bright material on the surface

From about 385km above Ceres’ surface, Dawn snapped detailed shots of the Kupalo Crater, one of the youngest on the dwarf planet, which has the same bright blemishes as the widely-seen Occator Crater. It also captured other craters, namely Cerean, Dantu and Messor.

“This crater and its recently-formed deposits will be a prime target of study for the team as Dawn continues to explore Ceres in its final mapping phase,” said Paul Schenk, a Dawn science team member at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.

Dawn Ceres

Ceres’ Messor Crater

The research will be done on the back of the various instruments Dawn is equipped with, including the finely-named GRaND, which is a gamma ray and neutron detector.

Data from GRaND will help researchers understand the abundances of elements on Ceres’ surface, along with details of the dwarf planet’s composition that hold important clues about how it evolved.

Dawn Ceres

Ceres’ Dantu Crater

Ceres is Dawn’s second target since it set sail back in 2007, taking in imagery from Vesta prior to this latest mission.

“When we set sail for Ceres upon completing our Vesta exploration, we expected to be surprised by what we found on our next stop. Ceres did not disappoint,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission.

“Everywhere we look in these new low-altitude observations, we see amazing landforms that speak to the unique character of this most amazing world.”

Dawn Ceres

Ceres’ Cerean Crater

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic