NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has beamed back exciting new images of dwarf planet Ceres that lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The new images offer a closer look at Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, captured from a distance of just 8,400 miles. The Dawn mission team members stitched the new images together into an animated GIF.
Ceres’ bright spots consist of several smaller spots
Even though the images offer a detailed look at Ceres’ bright spots, their exact nature remains elusive. These photos were taken between May 3 and May 4, at a resolution of 0.8 mile per pixel. Christopher Russell, chief investigator for the Dawn mission, said that the brightness of these spots is caused by the reflection of sunlight by reflective material on the surface, most likely ice.
NASA says the new images reveal that the bright spots are composed of multiple smaller spots of reflective material. Dawn spacecraft arrived in orbit around Ceres in March. The probe has completed its first mapping orbit, allowing its instruments to study the entire surface of the dwarf planet. The exact nature of these mysterious spots should be revealed after Dawn enters its next mapping orbit on June 6. The probe departed its first science orbit on May 9.
Dawn will be even closer to Ceres on June 6
In its second mapping orbit, Dawn will orbit Ceres every three days from a height of just 2,700 miles. The spacecraft will then begin a comprehensive mapping to study Ceres’ geological history. That could include whether the dwarf planet is still geologically active. Recently, Hubble Space Telescope had observed water vapor plumes emanating from Ceres.
At its closest encounter, Dawn will be just 270 miles from the surface of Ceres before wrapping up its mission in June 2016. Launched in 2007, the $466 million mission orbited protoplanet Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012 before moving towards Ceres. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.