The Dawn spacecraft observed Ceres for an hour on Jan. 13, 2015, from a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers). A little more than half of its surface was observed at a resolution of 27 pixels. This animated GIF shows bright and dark features.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
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.
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.
What created this large mountain on asteroid Ceres? No one is yet sure. As if in anticipation of today being Asteroid Day on Earth, the robotic spacecraft Dawn in orbit around Ceres took the best yet image of an unusually tall mountain on the Asteroid Belt’s largest asteroid. Visible at the top of the featured image, the exceptional mountain rises about five kilometers up from an area that otherwise appears pretty level.
The image was taken about two weeks ago from about 4,400 kilometers away. Although origin hypotheses for the mountain include volcanism, impacts, and plate tectonics, clear evidence backing any of these is currently lacking. Also visible across Ceres’ surface are some enigmatic light areas: bright spots whose origin and composition that also remain an active topic of investigation. Even though Dawn is expected to continue to orbit Ceres, officially dubbed a dwarf planet, for millions of years, the hydrazine fuel used to point Dawn’s communications antenna toward Earth is expected to run out sometime next year.
We’ve been wondering about those bright, white spots on the dwarf planet Ceres ever since the Dawn spacecraft arrived there in March. Speculation was all over the map: many people’s gut reaction said water ice, others fantasized about ice volcanoes (or Death Stars).
But today, two independent sets of researchers agree — it’s just salt.
Ceres is the largest
body in the asteroid main belt that lies between the orbits of Mars and
Jupiter. No asteroid family has been identified around it so far – a major
mystery in asteroid dynamics for many years. Astronomers using the Dawn spacecraft have been investigating the formation and dynamical
evolution of possible Ceres families and maybe a step closer to showing
that Ceres is not so lonely after all.
Images: (1) PIA19547: Ceres RC3 Animation by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Dawn Survey Orbit Image 28 by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Public domain via NASA. (3) Ceres Rotation and Occator Crater by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Public domain via NASA.
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).
NASA’s Dawn space probe has begun its third cycle mapping the largest asteroid, Ceres, and has already returned new photos of the Occator crater and its mysterious bright spots. Occator is a large crater 60 miles in diameter and 2 miles deep that was identified early-on in Dawn’s mission at Ceres due to several bright spots on the crater floor.
Dawn is orbiting the asteroid at an altitude of 915 miles. The resolution of the most recent photo is about 450 feet per pixel, and is about three times better than the resolution was on its previous cycle.
It is unknown what constitutes these bright spots.
It was discovered earlier this summer that the bright spots appear to be sublimating in a regular pattern. Sublimation is the process by which matter in a solid state becomes a gas without passing through the liquid phase in between. The gas has been observed to provide the area with a temporary, localized atmosphere. The sublimating atmosphere seems to indicate that the material is some kind of ice, but it is unknown if it is water ice or some other frozen material.
Dawn’s principle investigator is Christopher Russell of UCLA, and its chief engineer/mission director is Marc Rayman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Dawn launched in September of 2007. It visited another asteroid, Vesta, from 2011 to 2012 before continuing on to orbit Ceres. -MAX
These are frames from the latestNASA animated release found herefrom a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers),
in the Dawn spacecraft’s RC3 mapping orbit. The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3
kilometers) per pixel.
Dawn has now concluded its first mapping orbit, in which it completed
one 15-day full circle around Ceres while making a host of new
observations with its scientific instruments. On May 9, the spacecraft
powered on its ion engine to begin the month-long descent toward its
second mapping orbit, which it will enter on June 6. In this next phase,
Dawn will circle Ceres about every three days at an altitude of 2,700
miles (4,400 kilometers) – three times closer than the previous orbit.
During this phase, referred to as Dawn’s survey orbit, the spacecraft
will comprehensively map the surface to begin unraveling Ceres’ geologic
history and assess whether the dwarf planet is active. The spacecraft
will pause twice to take images of Ceres as it spirals down into this
The latest images reveal that the spot is actually two bright spots, lying next to each other in the same crater basin.
“Ceres’ bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin,” said Dawn mission scientist Dr Chris Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“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.”
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).
NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Captures Best-Ever View of Dwarf Planet
ESA - Dawn Mission patch.
January 27, 2015
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has returned the sharpest images ever seen of the dwarf planet Ceres. The images were taken 147,000 miles (237,000 kilometers) from Ceres on Jan. 25, and represent a new milestone for a spacecraft that soon will become the first human-made probe to visit a dwarf planet.
“We know so little about our vast solar system, but thanks to economical missions like Dawn, those mysteries are being solved,” said Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
At 43 pixels wide, the new images are more than 30 percent higher in resolution than those taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004 at a distance of over 150 million miles. The resolution is higher because Dawn is traveling through the solar system to Ceres, while Hubble remains fixed in Earth orbit. The new Dawn images come on the heels of initial navigation images taken Jan. 13 that reveal a white spot on the dwarf planet and the suggestion of craters. Hubble images also had glimpsed a white spot on the dwarf planet, but its nature is still unknown.
Image above: This animation of the dwarf planet Ceres was made by combining images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Jan. 25. The spacecraft’s framing camera took these images, at a distance of about 147,000 miles (237,000 kilometers) from Ceres, and they represent the highest-resolution views to date of the dwarf planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL.
“Ceres is a ‘planet’ that you’ve probably never heard of,” said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “We’re excited to learn all about it with Dawn and share our discoveries with the world.”
As the spacecraft gets closer to Ceres, its camera will return even better images. On March 6, Dawn will enter into orbit around Ceres to capture detailed images and measure variations in light reflected from Ceres, which should reveal the planet’s surface composition.
“We are already seeing areas and details on Ceres popping out that had not been seen before. For instance, there are several dark features in the southern hemisphere that might be craters within a region that is darker overall,” said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission at JPL. “Data from this mission will revolutionize our understanding of this unique body. Ceres is showing us tantalizing features that are whetting our appetite for the detailed exploration to come.”
Ceres, the largest body between Mars and Jupiter in the main asteroid belt, has a diameter of about 590 miles (950 kilometers). Some scientists believe the dwarf planet harbored a subsurface ocean in the past and liquid water may still be lurking under its icy mantle.
Originally described as a planet, Ceres was later categorized as an asteroid, and then reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. The mysterious world was discovered in 1801 by astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, who named the object for the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships.
Image above: Zoomed out – PIA19173 Ceres appears sharper than ever at 43 pixels across, a higher resolution than images of Ceres taken by the NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004. Image Credit: NASA/JPL.
“You may not realize that the word ‘cereal’ comes from the name Ceres. Perhaps you already connected with the dwarf planet at breakfast today,“ said JPL’s Marc Rayman, Mission Director and Chief Engineer of the Dawn mission.
Powered by a uniquely capable ion propulsion system, Dawn also orbited and explored Vesta, the second most massive body in the asteroid belt. From 2011 to 2012, Dawn returned more than 30,000 images, 18 million light measurements and other scientific data about the impressive large asteroid. Vesta has a diameter of about 326 miles (525 kilometers).
"With the help of Dawn and other missions, we are continually adding to our understanding of how the solar system began and how the planets were formed,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dawn’s mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL 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 Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
The framing cameras were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering in Braunschweig.
The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer was provided by the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, was built by Selex ES, and is managed by Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome. The gamma ray and neutron detector was built by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and is operated by the Planetary Science Institute of Tucson, Arizona.
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new
discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…'” That quote, delivered
by the brilliant science writer Isaac Asimov, keeps popping into my head
as I look at the remarkable new images of Ceres. NASA’s Dawn
spacecraft has been orbiting the dwarf planet since March 6,
scrutinizing a landscape that is not quite like anything humans have
ever seen before.
Now at Ceres, Dawn’s camera recorded this closer view of the dwarf planet’s northern hemisphere and one of its mysterious bright spots on May 4. A sunlit portrait of a small, dark world about 950 kilometers in diameter, the image is part of a planned sequence taken from the solar-powered spacecraft’s 15-day long RC3 mapping orbit at a distance of 13,600 kilometers (8,400 miles). The animated sequence shows Ceres’ rotation, its north pole at the top of the frame.
Imaged by Hubble in 2004 and then by Dawn as it approached Ceres in 2015, the bright spot itself is revealed to be made up of smaller spots of reflective material that could be exposed ice glinting in the sunlight. On Saturday, Dawn’s ion propulsion system was turned on to spiral the spacecraft into a closer 4,350-kilometer orbit by June 6. Of course another unexplored dwarf planet, Pluto, is expecting the arrival of a visitor from Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft, by mid-July.
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.
The most detailed images yet of strange “white spots” on the dwarf planet Ceres beamed down from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft recently, bringing us closer to solving the puzzling mystery that emerged upon Dawn’s arrival there last March.
Photo: Highest resolution images yet of Ceres’ mysterious “white spots” in Occator Crater. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)