NASA's Dawn spacecraft has taken the best and most detailed pictures of Ceres as it maneuvered its way to a new orbit around the dwarf planet last month.
Relic Of The Early Solar System
Astronomers have been eager to learn more about Ceres because it is a relic of the early days of the solar system. This world has not changed much over the past 4 billion years.
One of the things that caught the attention of scientists are the glowing white spots at the bottom of the dwarf planet's Occator crater.
Bright Spots On Ceres
Dawn discovered that the Occator floor on Ceres hosts odd bright deposits in early 2015 during its approach to Ceres. Later observations showed that the bright stuff, which also occurs at other locations, is made of sodium carbonate, a material also present in evaporite deposits on Earth.
The material was likely left behind when salty water boiled away into space albeit it was not clear where the water came from.
The new images of Occator that the Dawn captured on June 14 and 22 may help unravel the mystery by providing a more detailed picture of the crater floor.
"Dawn is like a master artist, adding rich details to the otherworldly beauty in its intimate portrait of Ceres," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and project manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The spacecraft's new orbit allowed it to have the best look ever at the dwarf planet's weird bright spots as it approached Ceres from a proximity of just 22 miles above the surface. This distance is more than 10 times closer to the surface than Dawn has ever gotten over the past three years it has been at Ceres.
Dawn's lowest altitude prior to last month was 240 miles, which means that the new data it collected from its current orbit provide a sharper image of the dwarf planet.
The low orbits revealed unprecedented details of the relationship between the bright and dark materials in the Vinalia Faculae region of the crater.
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. Gravity measurements may likewise reveal details of its subsurface.
"These new high-resolution data allow us to test theories formulated from the previous data sets and discover new features of this fascinating dwarf planet," said Carol Raymond, Dawn's principal investigator of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.