Published: Thu, July 05, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

NASA’s Dawn probe snaps close-ups of Ceres’ formerly mysterious white spots

NASA’s Dawn probe snaps close-ups of Ceres’ formerly mysterious white spots

Ceres' white spots shone brightly with reflected sunlight in the pictures that Dawn took from millions of miles away, leading some to dub them "alien headlights".

Dawn is in the final months of its mission, and ground controllers nudged the spacecraft into an orbit last month which takes the probe 10 times closer to Ceres than ever before. Previous observations from the spacecraft's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer revealed that these deposits, featured in a pronounced depression, are made up from sodium carbonate. "Unraveling the nature and history of this fascinating dwarf planet during the course of Dawn's extended stay at Ceres has been thrilling, and it is especially fitting that Dawn's last act will provide rich new data sets to test those theories".

Last week, Dawn fired its xenon-fueled ion engine, possibly for the final time, to bend its orbit to fly closer to Cerealia Facula, the large deposit of sodium carbonate at the center of Occator Crater, a 57-mile-wide (92-kilometer) depression carved by an ancient collision with an asteroid or comet, according to NASA.

"Acquiring these great paintings has been one of the biggest challenges in Don's extraordinary outer space mission, and the results are better than we expected", Don Chief Engineer and Project of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena Manager Marc Rayman, California said in a statement. The institute, which provided framing cameras for Dawn, also showcased signs of landslides from the northern and eastern rim of the crater.

In particular, scientists have been wondering how that material was exposed, either from a shallow, sub-surface reservoir of mineral-laden water, or from a deeper source of brines (liquid water enriched in salts) percolating upward through fractures. Before arriving at Ceres, Dawn explored the asteroid Vesta. Automatic interplanetary station was recently discovered on Ceres, the existence of seasonal processes on the planet and confirm its geological activity. Dawn has been orbiting Ceres since 2015, after first exploring the asteroid Vesta.

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It is hoped that the spacecraft's closer position will bring its features into sharper focus.

Data obtained by Dawn's other instruments may also unveil the composition of the dwarf planet at a finer scale, which could shed more light on the origins of the materials on the surface.

Before its recent descent, the closest Dawn had traveled to Ceres was 240 miles (385 kilometers).

These low orbits have revealed unprecedented details of the relationships between bright and dark materials in the region of Vinalia Faculae. Mission controllers look forward to continued science from Dawn, but they have completed all planned firing sessions of the industrious engines. More of the vehicle's images can be seen here.

Dawn entered Vesta's class from July 2011 to September 2012, when it left for Ceres. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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