Ceres: NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Closes In On Dwarf Planet, Photographs Strange Crater

NASA's Dawn mission caught this view toward Ceres' horizon before lowering to an orbit just dozens of miles above the dwarf planet's surface

"Don is like a master artist, who is adding rich details to the beauty of the other world in his close picture of Ceres".

Ever since approaching Ceres, Dawn has relayed a massive chunk of scientific data and images showcasing the dwarf planet in its full glow.

One of Dawn's targets is Occator Crater.

Last week, Dawn fired its xenon-fueled ion engine, possibly for the final time, to bend its orbit to fly closer to Cerealia Facula, the large deposit of sodium carbonate at the center of Occator Crater, a 57-mile-wide (92-kilometer) depression carved by an ancient collision with an asteroid or comet, according to NASA.

The NASA/JPL flight team figured out a new orbit around the dwarf planet that would get the probe 22 miles (35 kilometers) on the nearest dive. The Dawn spacecraft imaged this feature on June 16, 2018, as the probe orbited the tiny dwarf planet from an altitude of just 21 miles (33 kilometers).

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is one that we don't hear from very often these days, mainly because it spent seven years on its way to dwarf planet Ceres and it's been (very) slowly getting closer to the object ever since it arrived in 2015.

What are these bright spots?

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Here is a more zoomed-in view, highlighting the central deposits of sodium carbonate.

Scientists believe the salt deposits were exposed either from a shallow, sub-surface reservoir that may have dried up and left behind a layer of sodium carbonate, or from a deeper supply of briny, salt-enriched water that may have percolated up through fractures of Ceres' surface.

"We now hope to understand how the bright deposits outside the crater center came about - and what they tell us about Ceres' interior", Andreas Nathues from the institute stated in another statement.

Close-up image of the Vinalia Faculae in Occator Crater.

"The first views of Ceres obtained by Dawn beckoned us with a single, blinding bright spot", JPL's Carol Raymond, principal investigator on the Dawn project, said in a statement.

This second extended Dawn mission around Ceres might finally yield an answer to this question, as well as unravel the mystery of what goes on under its surface (via gravity measurements), and provide a detailed analysis of the dwarf planet's composition (thanks to low-altitude observations with Dawn's gamma ray and neutron detector, and visible and infrared mapping spectrometer). This made Dawn the first object to orbit two different bodies beyond the Earth-Moon system.

Dawn is in the final months of its mission, and ground controllers nudged the spacecraft into an orbit last month which takes the probe 10 times closer to Ceres than ever before. Mission controllers look forward to continued science from Dawn, but they have completed all planned firing sessions of the industrious engines.

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