A recently discovered solitary ice volcano on the dwarf planet Ceres may have some hidden older siblings, say scientists who have tested a likely way such mountains of icy rock – called cryovolcanoes – might disappear over millions of years.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft discovered Ceres’s 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) tall Ahuna Mons cryovolcano in 2015. Other icy worlds in our solar system, like Pluto, Europa, Triton, Charon and Titan, may also have cryovolcanoes, but Ahuna Mons is conspicuously alone on Ceres. The dwarf planet, with an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, also lies far closer to the Sun than other planetary bodies where cryovolcanoes have been found.

Now, scientists show there may have been cryovolcanoes other than Ahuna Mons on Ceres millions or billions of years ago, but these cryovolcanoes may have flattened out over time and become indistinguishable from the planet’s surface. They report their findings in a new paper accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“We think we have a very good case that there have been lots of cryovolcanoes on Ceres but they have deformed,” said Michael Sori of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and lead author of the new paper.

Ahuna Mons is a prominent feature on Ceres, rising to about half the height of Mount Everest. Its solitary existence has puzzled scientists since they spied it.

“Imagine if there was just one volcano on all of Earth,” Sori said. “That would be puzzling.”

Adding to the puzzle are the steep sides and well-defined features of Ahuna Mons – usually signs of geologic youth, Sori said. That leads to two possibilities: Ahuna Mons is just as it appears, inexplicably alone after forming relatively recently on an otherwise inactive world. Or, the cryovolcano is not alone or unusual, and there is some process on Ceres that has destroyed its predecessors and left the young Ahuna Mons as the solitary cryovolcano on the dwarf planet, according to Sori.

Ceres has no atmosphere, so the processes that wear down volcanoes on Earth – wind, rain and ice – aren’t possible on the dwarf planet. Sori and his colleagues hypothesized that another process, called viscous relaxation, could be at work.

Viscous relaxation is the idea that just about any solid will flow, given enough time. For example, a cold block of honey appears to be solid. But if given enough time, the block will flatten out until there is no sign left of the original block structure.

On Earth, viscous relaxation is what makes glaciers flow, Sori explained. The process doesn’t affect volcanoes on Earth because they are made of rock, but Ceres’s volcanoes contain ice – making viscous relaxation possible. On Ceres, viscous relaxation could be causing older cryovolcanoes to flatten out over millions of years so they are hard to discern. Ceres’s location close to the Sun could make the process more pronounced, Sori said.

To test the idea that viscous relaxation had caused cryovolcanoes to flatten out on Ceres, Sori and his colleagues created a model using the actual dimensions of Ahuna Mons to predict how fast the mountain might be flowing. They ran the model assuming different water contents of the material that makes up the mountain – ranging from 100 percent water ice to 40 percent water ice, Sori explained.

Ahuna Mons would need to be composed of more than 40 percent water ice to be affected by viscous relaxation, they found. At this composition, Sori estimates that Ahuna Mons should be flattening out at a rate of 10 to 50 meters (30 to 160 feet) per million years. That is enough to render cryovolcanoes unrecognizable in hundreds of millions to billions of years, suggesting there could have been other cryovolcanoes on Ceres, according to the new study.

“Ahuna Mons is at most 200 million years old. It just hasn’t had time to deform,” Sori said.

The next step for Sori and his team will be to try and identify the flattened remnants of older cryovolcanoes on Ceres. The findings could help scientists better decipher the history of how the dwarf planet formed, he added.

The new study helps scientists expand their knowledge of what might be possible on planetary bodies in our solar system, said Kelsi Singer, a postdoctoral researcher who studies icy worlds at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and was not involved with the new research.

“It would be fun to check some of the other features that are potentially older domes on Ceres to see if they fit in with the theory of how the shapes should viscously evolve over time,” she said. “Because all of the putative cryovolcanic features on other worlds are different, I think this helps to expand our inventory of what is possible.”

TOP IMAGE….Ahuna Mons seen in a simulated perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA’s Dawn mission.
Credit: NASA

LOWER IMAGE….Ceres’ mysterious mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Dawn took these images from 385 kilometers (240 miles ) above the surface, in December 2015. The resolution of the image is 35 meters (120 feet) per pixel.
Credit: NASA

New technology that will change the world(s):

1. Ion Propulsion

(Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Technically not upcoming, ion propulsion is already a reality. Since it propels a spacecraft one particle at a time (as opposed to chemical propulsion, which explodes, generally, out the back), this propellant is hugely efficient.

The trick is what’s known to physicists as “specific impulse”. When a chemically propelled vehicle propels, it causes an explosion out the back, pushing the object forward. After exiting the vehicle however, the explosion immediately spreads in all directions, meaning that much of the energy of the explosion is lost on direction other than the one the spacecraft wishes to move.

Ion propulsion takes a long time to build speed but is so efficient that NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, being an ion propelled machine, is the first to be able to orbit multiple things in the solar system.

With ion propellant, a spacecraft may be able to even generate enough speed to allow for interstellar space exploration (meaning it could enable us to leave the Solar System). Though speculative, the possibility is undeniable.

2. Solar Sailing

(Image credit: NASA)

This technology is still controversial. The science is this:

Light has momentum. When light hits a highly reflective surface, the surface, is pushed. With gradual building of velocity, a spacecraft could easily attain vast speeds, again leading to aspirations toward interstellar exploration.

The advantage over ion propulsion though, is that this is exploration without propellant.

Such methods of discovery haven’t been relevant since our ancestors explored the Earth on boats driven by the wind.

Though the science is known, the engineering applications are still somewhat mysterious.

The momentum gained from a single photon is very small. The area of material needed for a solar sail that could carry something like a generation starship is many orders of magnitude larger than any tested solar sail concept. It’s arguable whether or not this technology would ultimately turn out to be the most efficient way to go.

That space exploration is expensive means that when someone bothers to pay for a launch, the first thing they would hate to do is lose their spacecraft because it turns out to not be able to propel itself. Most bankrollers of space travel tend to favor tried and true methods.

That said, the testing of solar sails is underway.

Agencies like NASA, JAXA and even the Planetary Society (holla) are currently undergoing mission preparation, or already have a mission underway, testing solar sails.

3. Renewable Rocketry

(Image credit: SpaceX)

This one’s a biggie.

Imagine, you buy a car. You go buy groceries, come home and then your car explodes.

Every. Single. Time.

Tell me, could you afford to buy a new car every week to buy groceries, or would you figure something else out?

Personally, I wouldn’t be able to travel by car. I just don’t have the money to buy a new one every week.

Space exploration faces the same problem. Rocket technology was mostly driven and invented by military ventures that didn’t care about getting the rocket back. In fact, for a military rocket - if you see it coming back at you then you’ve probably done something wrong.

New efforts are underway to change this.

Companies like SpaceX, Reaction Engines and Blue Origin are devising groundbreaking new technologies that are fundamentally different from the rocketry of yesteryear.

Soon SpaceX will be carrying people into low Earth orbit, dropping them off and returning to a landing pad in Florida.

Reaction Engines Ltd has invented a hybrid rocket engine which breathes oxygen from the atmosphere like a jet engine, then becomes a spacecraft engine once the air becomes too thin (meaning it needs a fraction of the fuel to get to space as most others).

Blue Origin plans on carrying tourists to the edge of space, with the rocket then returning to the landing pad softly on a plume of fire.

Each of these ventures has already proven their technology. They’re each on the road to implementing it now, with both SpaceX and Blue Origin currently launching with the technology.

Let me give you an idea of how much this is going to change humanity:

The cost of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is around $61 million.

Of that, the cost of fuel is about $200,000 (according to SpaceX).

In two years, SpaceX will be regularly launching seven astronauts at a time to the space station.

If all you need to pay for (approximately) is the cost of fuel (similar to fueling up your car), the cost of fuel between seven to get to space drops to a potential $28,500 or so.

Though still expensive, it’s easily within the bounds of startup companies to launch to space on commercial endeavors, meaning there will be private sector astronaut positions opening up in the very near future (they already exist actually).

Some vacations cost more than this. It’s within the bounds of reason to expect such entertainment prospects to carry into orbit.

Imagine: zero-gravity theme parks and floating hotels where you can watch, romantically as the Sun sets on the Earth below 16 times a day and you can see the Northern lights, lightning storms and the artificial spark of city lights spread out below you like some wondrous surreal painting.

With companies already developing espresso machines and cups for microgravity, and astronauts already testing greenhouses that grow vegetables in orbit, it seems inevitable that humanity is on the cusp of realizing the experience of the final frontier.

(More technologies to come in a later post)


Ceres, the closest dwarf planet, has its mysteries solved by NASA

3.) The second brightest crater on Ceres, Oxo, is the only location that exhibits surface water. This small, 9 kilometer (6 mile) wide crater is most likely very young, as water ice should sublimate in the sunlight on timescales of a few million years at most: much shorter than the lifetime of this world. Either it’s one of the most recent impact craters, and practically all impact craters dredge up subsurface water, or there’s been recent landslide that exposed this water. Future analyses should be able to reveals whether there’s other water-ice on the surface (at lower density than what’s found here), as well as determining whether this is pure water-ice, or whether this is frozen water that’s bound into minerals, making them more stable against sublimation than water-ice on its own.”

NASA’s Dawn mission has just revealed a huge suite of data about Ceres, our Solar System’s closest dwarf planet. No longer merely taking pictures, at its orbital altitude of just 240 miles (385 km), it’s now gathering information from many instruments, measuring the chemical composition and neutron/gamma ray fluxes from the surface. Three big surprises have emerged, including a new theory for the salt deposits in Occator crater, the possible existence of sub-surface icecaps at the poles, and a new set of white spots in Oxo crater, which are water-ice after all!


New Ceres Views as Dawn Moves Higher

The brightest area on Ceres stands out amid shadowy, cratered terrain in a dramatic new view from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, taken as it looked off to the side of the dwarf planet. Dawn snapped this image on Oct. 16, from its fifth science orbit, in which the angle of the sun was different from that in previous orbits. Dawn was about 920 miles (1,480 kilometers) above Ceres when this image was taken – an altitude the spacecraft had reached in early October.

Occator Crater, with its central bright region and secondary, less-reflective areas, appears quite prominent near the limb, or edge, of Ceres. At 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, Occator displays evidence of recent geologic activity. The latest research suggests that the bright material in this crater is comprised of salts left behind after a briny liquid emerged from below, froze and then sublimated, meaning it turned from ice into vapor.

The impact that formed the crater millions of years ago unearthed material that blanketed the area outside the crater, and may have triggered the upwelling of salty liquid.

“This image captures the wonder of soaring above this fascinating, unique world that Dawn is the first to explore,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Dawn scientists also have released an image of Ceres that approximates how the dwarf planet’s colors would appear to the human eye. This view, produced by the German Aerospace Center in Berlin, combines images taken from Dawn’s first science orbit in 2015, using the framing camera’s red, green and blue filters. The color was calculated based on the way Ceres reflects different wavelengths of light.

The spacecraft has gathered tens of thousands of images and other information from Ceres since arriving in orbit on March 6, 2015. After spending more than eight months studying Ceres at an altitude of about 240 miles (385 kilometers), closer than the International Space Station is to Earth, Dawn headed for a higher vantage point in August. In October, while the spacecraft was at its 920-mile altitude, it returned images and other valuable insights about Ceres.

On Nov. 4, Dawn began making its way to a sixth science orbit, which will be over 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) from Ceres. While Dawn needed to make several changes in its direction while spiraling between most previous orbits at Ceres, engineers have figured out a way for the spacecraft to arrive at this next orbit while the ion engine thrusts in the same direction that Dawn is already going. This uses less hydrazine and xenon fuel than Dawn’s normal spiral maneuvers. Dawn should reach this next orbit in early December.

One goal of Dawn’s sixth science orbit is to refine previously collected measurements. The spacecraft’s gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which has been investigating the composition of Ceres’ surface, will characterize the radiation from cosmic rays unrelated to Ceres. This will allow scientists to subtract “noise” from measurements of Ceres, making the information more precise.

The spacecraft is healthy as it continues to operate in its extended mission phase, which began in July. During the primary mission, Dawn orbited and accomplished all of its original objectives at Ceres and protoplanet Vesta, which the spacecraft visited from July 2011 to September 2012.

Dawn’s mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

TOP IMAGE….Occator on Ceres’ Limb This image of the limb of dwarf planet Ceres shows a section of the northern hemisphere. Prominently featured is Occator Crater, home of Ceres’ intriguing brightest areas.
At 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, Occator displays evidence of recent geologic activity. The latest research suggests that the bright material in this crater is comprised of salts left behind after a briny liquid emerged from below, froze and then sublimated, meaning it turned from ice into vapor. Dawn took this image on Oct. 17 from its second extended-mission science orbit (XMO2), at a distance of about 920 miles (1,480 kilometers) above the surface. The image resolution is about 460 feet (140 meters) per pixel.

LOWER IMAGE….Ceres in Color This image of Ceres approximates how the dwarf planet’s colors would appear to the eye. This view of Ceres, produced by the German Aerospace Center in Berlin, combines images taken during Dawn’s first science orbit in 2015 using the framing camera’s red, green and blue spectral filters. The color was calculated using a reflectance spectrum, which is based on the way that Ceres reflects different wavelengths of light and the solar wavelengths that illuminate Ceres.

Solar System: 5 Things To Know This Week

Our solar system is huge, so let us break it down for you. Here are 5 things to know this week: 

1. Make a Wish

The annual Leonids meteor shower is not known for a high number of “shooting stars” (expect as many as 15 an hour), but they’re usually bright and colorful. They’re fast, too: Leonids travel at speeds of 71 km (44 miles) per second, which makes them some of the fastest. This year the Leonids shower will peak around midnight on Nov. 17-18. The crescent moon will set before midnight, leaving dark skies for watching. Get more viewing tips HERE.

2. Back to the Beginning

Our Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres is really a journey to the beginning of the solar system, since Ceres acts as a kind of time capsule from the formation of the asteroid belt. If you’ll be in the Washington DC area on Nov. 19, you can catch a presentation by Lucy McFadden, a co-investigator on the Dawn mission, who will discuss what we’ve discovered so far at this tiny but captivating world. Find out how to attend HERE

3. Keep Your Eye on This Spot

The Juno spacecraft is on target for a July 2016 arrival at the giant planet Jupiter. But right now, your help is needed. Members of the Juno team are calling all amateur astronomers to upload their telescopic images and data of Jupiter. This will help the team plan their observations. Join in HERE.

4. The Ice Volcanoes of Pluto

The more data from July’s Pluto flyby that comes down from the New Horizons spacecraft, the more interesting Pluto becomes. The latest finding? Possible ice volcanoes. Using images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps, scientists discovered that some mountains on Pluto, such as the informally named Piccard Mons and Wright Mons, had structures that suggested they could be cryovolcanoes that may have been active in the recent geological past.

5. Hidden Storm

Cameras aboard the Cassini spacecraft have been tracking an impressive cloud hovering over the south pole of Saturn’s moon Titan. But that cloud has turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. A much more massive ice cloud system has been found lower in the stratosphere, peaking at an altitude of about 124 miles (200 kilometers).

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The dwarf planet Ceres, imaged by the Dawn spacecraft, May 3rd - 4th 2015.  This world is the largest object in the asteroid belt, with a diameter of 950 kilometers. Ceres is likely a protoplanet, left over from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.  Its interior is probably a mixture of rock and water ice, while mysterious bright features on the surface hint at geological activity.  (Note: this animation has been rotated 180 ° so that the North pole faces downwards)

Solar System: Things to Know This Week

Our solar system is huge, let us break it down for you. Here are a few things to know this week:

1. Up at Jupiter, It’s Down to Business

Ever since our Juno mission entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, engineers and scientists have been busy getting their newly arrived spacecraft ready for operations. Juno’s science instruments had been turned off in the days leading up to Jupiter orbit insertion. As planned, the spacecraft powered up five instruments on July 6, and the remaining instruments should follow before the end of the month. The Juno team has also scheduled a short trajectory correction maneuver on July 13 to refine the orbit.

2. The Shadows Know

Scientists with our Dawn mission have identified permanently shadowed regions on the dwarf planet Ceres. Most of these areas likely have been cold enough to trap water ice for a billion years, suggesting that ice deposits could exist there now (as they do on the planet Mercury). Dawn is looking into it.

3. Frosts of Summer

Some dusty parts of Mars get as cold at night year-round as the planet’s poles do in winter, even in regions near the equator in summer, according to new findings based on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observations. The culprit may be Mars’ ever-present dust.

4. Can You Hear Me Now?

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is designed to sample an asteroid and return that sample to Earth. After launch in Sept., the mission’s success will depend greatly on its communications systems with Earth to relay everything from its health and status to scientific findings from the asteroid Bennu. That’s why engineers from our Deep Space Network recently spent a couple of weeks performing detailed tests of the various communications systems aboard OSIRIS-REx.

5. Cometary Close-ups

The Rosetta spacecraft has taken thousands of photographs of Comet 67/P. The European Space Agency (ESA) is now regularly releasing the highest-resolution images. The word “stunning” is used a lot when referring to pictures from space—and these ones truly are. See the latest HERE.

Want to learn more? Read our full list of the 10 things to know this week about the solar system HERE.

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Solar System: 2015 Year in Review

Two mysterious worlds explored for the first time. Liquid water seen flowing on Mars. A global ocean discovered hiding inside a moon of Saturn. Even during our Era of audacious solar system exploration, 2015 stands out. Here are a few highlights:

1. New Horizons Reveals the Face of Pluto

Whether or not you call it a planet, Pluto entranced the people of Earth when it sent a love note from three billion miles away via our New Horizons spacecraft.

2. Dawn Comes to Ceres

The dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt, teased explorers with its bizarre bright spots before finally giving up some of its secrets to the Dawn spacecraft. HERE are the latest findings.

3. Cassini Marks Discoveries and Milestones at Enceladus

When the Cassini spacecraft performs its final close flyby of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus on Dec. 19, it will be a true milestone. Scientists using data from Cassini’s instruments have uncovered astounding secrets about this small moon, including (confirmed this year) the fact that its underground ocean of liquid water is global, and is home to hydrothermal vents.

4. We Confirmed Evidence that Liquid Water Flows on Today’s Mars

Findings from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provided the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently — on present-day Mars.

5. Rosetta Passes Perihelion

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission had a remarkable year, re-establishing contact with the Philae lander and following comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it swung near the sun.

6. Mars Explorers Confirm Lakes Once Dotted Mars

A study from the team behind our Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover confirmed that Mars was once, billions of years ago, capable of storing water in lakes over an extended period of time.

7. MAVEN Finds a Culprit in the Loss of Mars’ Atmosphere

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission identified the process that appears to have played a key role in the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold, arid planet that Mars is today.

8. Akatsuki Gets a Second Chance at Venus

Five years after a mishap sent the spacecraft off course, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully inserted the Venus Climate Orbiter “Akatsuki” into orbit around Venus. While the mission is not funded by NASA, an agency partnership with JAXA provides an opportunity for eight of our scientists to work with the Akatsuki team and study data from the spacecraft over the next year or so.

9. A Trailblazing Mission Sends Its Final Message from Mercury

After a flight of nearly 11 years, the highly successful MESSENGER mission ended when, as planned, the spacecraft slammed into the surface of Mercury.

10. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Completes 40,000 Orbits

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, at Mars since 2006, has orbited the Red Planet more than 40,000 times. The mission, which studies the whole planet from space, has shown that Mars is diverse and dynamic by way of many thousands of spectacular images and other kinds of data.

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More and more spots

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft was officially captured by the gravity of the Asteroid Ceres about 2 months ago, but since then we haven’t actually gotten that much data. The Dawn spacecraft’s main engine is an ion-powered thruster that, although it is extremely efficient it isn’t very fast, so the spacecraft has spent the last couple months aiming that thruster in the direction it istraveling to slow down and come into a more circular orbit around Ceres.

As a consequence, the imaging systems on Dawn haven’t been able to aim towards Ceres. However, today, the Dawn team released this photo of the feature everyone keeps wondering about on Ceres, the extremely bright spots.

As the spacecraft moves into closer orbits, it is getting better and better shots of them. As you can see, at least one, if not both of the “spots” that were seen as single bright points in previous, lower-resolution images now are made up of several smaller spots close to each other.

Really neat, but still leaves us with the same questions about what they are. All we know is they’re reflecting a lot of light towards the camera, but that doesn’t yet tell us composition (other instruments can measure that, but we haven’t gotten data from them yet). The best guesses remain that these are exposed areas of water ice or salts, both of which tend to be pretty bright when they’re not covered by other debris.

The Dawn spacecraft will reach its first science altitude, the Survey orbit, in June, and from there will move into two gradually closer orbits afterwards, so we’ll continue seeing better and better pictures of these areas and others for months to come.


Image credit: NASA/Dawn

Today the NASA Dawn spacecraft went into orbit around Ceres, a 600-mile-wide, roughly spherical world. The mission, en route since 2007 driven by a revolutionary ion propulsion system, is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. 

Designed to orbit the dwarf planet as it had previously orbited the asteroid Vesta, the mission’s eyes include a camera sensitive to visible light, a spectrometer for observing aspects of visible and infrared light, and another sensitive to gamma rays and neutrons. In addition, information gleaned from navigational data is expected to provide insights into the mass and internal structure of the dwarf planet.

Unlike Vesta, Ceres appears more akin to icy moons orbiting Jovian worlds than it is to terrestrial planets such as Earth. Comparisons between Vesta and Ceres are expected to reveal fundamental insights into how a vast nascent protosolar nebula of gas and dust contracted four and a half billion years ago and evolved into today’s Solar System.

Other important questions relating to the mission include the quest for specifics about a significant mass of water believed to exist beneath Ceres’ surface. Before we knew much about other worlds, Earth was sometimes described as a unique “water planet.” Space age studies show that water is not uncommon in the universe, with substantial amounts in comets, certain asteroids, a number of Jovian planet moons, and interstellar space.

Learn more on the Sky Reporter blog. 

Ceres’ bright spot has dimmer companion

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is set to insert itself into orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres on March 6, 2015. The enigmatic body has puzzled astronomers since its discovery in 1801. The probe’s latest images, taken from a mere 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) from Ceres, reveal that the bright spot first detected in previous images, may not be alone. Astronomers do not yet know what these bright spots are.

“Ceres’ bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin. This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ion propulsion permits Dawn to venture on a very bold mission, that would be out of reach with traditional propulsion systems. Dawn is equipped with two solar panels, spanning approximately 65 feet (19.7 meters) from tip to tip. The panels collect energy from the Sun, which then ionizes (accelerates the ions) the vehicle’s fuel — xenon — and accelerates the spacecraft.

Using its ion propulsion system, Dawn will enter orbit around Ceres on March 6. Scientists are expecting to receive better and better views of the dwarf planet over the next 16 months, and hope to better understand how Ceres formed and developed over time by studying different features on its surface, like the pair of bright spots.

“The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres. This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.

This mission has the potential to make many paradigm-shifting discoveries about these two bodies and even how we classify objects in the solar system. Researchers has already enjoyed unprecedented views and data on Vesta, and are anxious to see what Ceres has in store. Ceres may even have active hydrologic processes leading to seasonal polar caps of water frost, altering our understanding of the interior of these bodies.

Image & Source credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Flight Over Dwarf Planet Ceres

Take a flight over dwarf planet Ceres in this video made with images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. The simulated flyover was made by the mission’s camera team at Germany’s national aeronautics and space research center (DLR).