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NASA’s Dawn team looks at mysteries and insights about Ceres

The team behind NASA’s Dawn spacecraft this week are at the European Planetary Science Conference in Nantes, France, to discuss data they gathered from the dwarf planet Ceres.

“Ceres continues to amaze, yet puzzle us, as we examine our multitude of images, spectra and now energetic particle bursts,” said Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A new colour-coded topographic map shows more than a dozen recently approved names for features on Ceres, all eponymous for agricultural spirits, deities and festivals from cultures around the world.

These include Jaja, after the Abkhazian harvest goddess, and Ernutet, after the cobra-headed Egyptian harvest goddess. A 20-kilometre diameter mountain near Ceres’ north pole is now called Ysolo Mons, for an Albanian festival that marks the first day of the eggplant harvest.

Another new Ceres map, in false colour, above, enhances compositional differences present on the surface. NASA writes:

The variations are more subtle than on Vesta, Dawn’s previous port of call. Color-coded topographic images of Occator (oh-KAH-tor) crater, home of Ceres’ brightest spots, below, and a cone-shaped six-kilometre-high) mountain, are also available. Scientists are still trying to identify processes that could produce these and other unique Cerean phenomena.

“The irregular shapes of craters on Ceres are especially interesting, resembling craters we see on Saturn’s icy moon Rhea,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“They are very different from the bowl-shaped craters on Vesta.”

A surprising bonus observation came from Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. The instrument detected three bursts of energetic electrons that may result from the interaction between Ceres and radiation from the sun. The observation isn’t yet fully understood, but may be important in forming a complete picture of Ceres. 

“This is a very unexpected observation for which we are now testing hypotheses,” Russell said.

Dawn is currently orbiting Ceres at an altitude of 1,470 kilometres, and the spacecraft will image the entire surface of the dwarf planet up to six times in this phase of the mission.

You can get more information on the Dawn mission here.

This view, made using images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, is a colour-coded topographic map of Occator crater on Ceres. Blue is the lowest elevation, and brown is the highest. The crater, which is home to the brightest spots on Ceres, is approximately 90 kilometres wide. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]
This view, made using images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, is a colour-coded topographic map of Occator crater on Ceres. Blue is the lowest elevation, and brown is the highest. The crater, which is home to the brightest spots on Ceres, is approximately 90 kilometres wide.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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