NASA's Dawn spacecraft has captured new images of Ceres, offering more clues about a pyramid and some bright spots on the dwarf planet.
Based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Carol Raymond, the Dawn mission's deputy principal investigator, explained that Ceres' surface has a number of unique and interesting features, adding that these features will help scientists in researching and understanding the inner structure of the dwarf planet that cannot be directly sensed.
From its second mapping orbit, located 2,700 miles above Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft has been studying the dwarf planet intently. And thanks to this, a new view has been captured, showing not just what appears to be a mountain rising 3 miles from Ceres' surface, but bright spots above a crater around 55 miles in diameter as well as smaller spots in the same crater that have not been visible before.
Ceres has a number of craters of various sizes and many of them have central peaks. Sufficient evidence show past activity on the dwarf planet, which include collapses, flows and landslides, revealing more than what the Dawn was able to gather on Vesta when the spacecraft studied the protoplanet for 14 months between 2011 and 2012.
Scientists believe the smaller spots are around 6 miles wide and number at least eight in the area next to the largest bright spot. It is believed that highly reflective material is the source of these bright spots. Salt and ice are top choices as possible sources but scientists are also taking into consideration other options.
Dawn makes use of an infrared and visible light mapping spectrometer to let scientists identify certain minerals found on the dwarf planet depending on how light reflects from a material. Every mineral has an infrared- and visible-light wavelength unique to it and it is this signature that aids scientists in determining what components make up Ceres. So as the Dawn spacecraft sends back more data and images, scientists have more to work with, helping them learn more not just about the bright spots but Ceres in general.
Ceres is the largest object within the main asteroid belt sitting between Jupiter and Mars. The Dawn spacecraft arrived on the dwarf planet last March 6 and will remain until June 30 at its current altitude. The spacecraft is expected to move to its next orbit at an altitude of 900 miles in early August.
JPL manages the Dawn mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate while the University of California, Los Angeles handles the science for the mission. The Italian National Astrophysical Institute, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the German Aerospace Center are international mission partners.