A new view of the dwarf planet Ceres has been released by the Dawn spacecraft team. Ceres is about 950 kilometres in diameter and resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Dawn spacecraft has been mapping the surface of Ceres over the past few months while in orbit.
The colour coded topographic maps reveal interesting features on the surface of the dwarf planet. One of these features is a 6.4 kilometre high mountain that has been called ‘the pyramid’. Scientists are unsure how a mountain this size could have formed on Ceres. It is unlikely it could have formed through the same process as mountains form on Earth but one possible explanation is tectonic forces in subsurface ice but not enough is known yet to come to any conclusions. Seen below is the pyramid. Its peak is coloured brown and is surrounded by red area. This indicates it is high relative to the surroundings.
A close up pictures of the crater containing the now famous ‘mysterious bright spots’ was also released. The bright spots are located in the Occator crater, which is about 90 kilometres in diameter. Several hypotheses have been put forward as to what could be causing the spots. Some of the suggestions are huge salt deposits or water ice just below the surface.
Several abnormally shaped craters are seen in the full map (seen above) that don’t fit in. According to Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator, the craters resemble those seen on Saturn’s moon Rhea, which is in a much different part of the solar system. They don’t look like the craters seen on Vesta, another Dwarf planet in the asteroid belt.
The maps are being analyzed by scientists in France by the European Planetary Science Conference (ESPC) and will reveal a lot about the geology on Ceres. For example the age of several features can be inferred and minerals on the surface can be identified. Also being talked about by the ESPC is the occurrence of a strange burst of electrons detected by Dawn. One possible explanation for this is interference from solar radiation.
As of right now, the Dawn spacecraft, which was orbiting at a distance of 1,500 kilometres from Ceres, is using its ion engines to come within 375 kilometres of the dwarf planet where it will orbit into December.