NASA mission provides closest ever look at dwarf planet Ceres

June 11, 2015
The first images of Ceres from the Dawn mission reveal a surface filled with craters of many shapes and sizes.

A NASA mission led by UCLA professor Christopher Russell has released new images of the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest asteroid between Mars and Jupiter.

The photos were produced by the spacecraft Dawn, which is now observing Ceres from 2,700 miles above its surface; NASA has also produced a one-minute video animation that sheds new light on this mysterious and heavily cratered world.

"Everything we learn from Ceres will be absolutely new," said Christopher Russell, a UCLA professor of space physics and planetary science, and the Dawn mission's principal investigator. "We approach it in awe and almost total ignorance."

Dawn's visit to Ceres, which is scheduled to last more than a year, began on March 6. From July 2011 to September 2012, it observed Vesta, a 'minor planet' that is the second most massive body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Over the years, scientists have learned about the conditions at the beginning of the solar system by studying meteorites from Vesta that have fallen to Earth. There have been no such meteorites produced by Ceres, an indication that the two bodies are likely very different. For example, Dawn found little evidence to indicate there is water on Vesta. But Russell said Ceres could have a substantial amount of water or ice beneath its rocky crust.

The presence of water, he said, could 'affect the time for relaxation of craters and mountains on Ceres and reduce the height of the topography compared to Vesta, and will affect minerals on the surface." Russell also said Ceres, unlike Vesta, might have a weak atmosphere and perhaps even life.

Dawn, which launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2007, is the first NASA spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet and the first to orbit two celestial bodies beyond the moon.

Scientists expect the mission to provide insights about Ceres' shape, size, composition, internal structure, and tectonic and thermal evolution. The findings also should provide new understanding about the conditions under which Ceres and Vesta were formed.

Dawn is powered by an advanced NASA technology known as ion propulsion that enables it to use fuel more than 10 times more efficiently than standard rockets. It is outfitted with two high-resolution cameras (including one backup), a visible and near-infrared mapping spectrometer to identify minerals on the surface, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which will be used to reveal the presence of elements such as iron and hydrogen in the soil.

NASA has reported that Dawn's price tag—including the construction and launch of the space craft and 10 years of operations—is $472 million. Russell said the Dawn mission is actually very cost-efficient compared with other means of space exploration. Separate missions to Ceres and Vesta would likely have cost more than double that amount.

Russell and his team are in charge of Dawn's scientific research—with the lead role in analyzing and interpreting data from the space craft—and public outreach. In 2014, they received the Trophy for Current Achievement, the National Air and Space Museum's highest honor in the fields of aerospace science and technology.

"The Dawn flight team and the Dawn science team are high achievers, but the spacecraft itself is the highest achiever," Russell said.

Explore further: Dawn spirals closer to Ceres, returns a new view

Related Stories

Dawn spirals closer to Ceres, returns a new view

May 28, 2015

A new view of Ceres, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 23, shows finer detail is becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) with a resolution ...

Fly over Ceres in new video

June 8, 2015

A new animated video of dwarf planet Ceres, based on images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, provides a unique perspective of this heavily cratered, mysterious world.

Dawn snaps its best-yet image of dwarf planet ceres

December 5, 2014

The Dawn spacecraft has delivered a glimpse of Ceres, the largest body in the main asteroid belt, in a new image taken 740,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from the dwarf planet. This is Dawn's best image yet of Ceres as ...

Dawn glimpses Ceres' north pole

April 19, 2015

After spending more than a month in orbit on the dark side of dwarf planet Ceres, NASA's Dawn spacecraft has captured several views of the sunlit north pole of this intriguing world. These images were taken on April 10 from ...

Bright spots shine in newest Dawn Ceres images

June 11, 2015

New images of dwarf planet Ceres, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, show the cratered surface of this mysterious world in sharper detail than ever before. These are among the first snapshots from Dawn's second mapping orbit, ...

Dawn captures sharper images of Ceres

February 17, 2015

Craters and mysterious bright spots are beginning to pop out in the latest images of Ceres from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These images, taken Feb. 12 at a distance of 52,000 miles (83,000 kilometers) from the dwarf planet, ...

Recommended for you

Recurring martian streaks: flowing sand, not water?

November 20, 2017

Dark features on Mars previously considered evidence for subsurface flowing of water are interpreted by new research as granular flows, where grains of sand and dust slip downhill to make dark streaks, rather than the ground ...

Image: Hubble's cosmic search for a missing arm

November 20, 2017

This new picture of the week, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the dwarf galaxy NGC 4625, located about 30 million light-years away in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs). The image, ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
not rated yet Jun 11, 2015
One of the oldest surfaces in the solar system based on crater size and morphology. Unlike Vesta or any of the large moons, no "mares" or large scale resurfacing is apparent.
EnsignFlandry
not rated yet Jun 12, 2015
Fantastic. I remember reading about Ceres in science fiction stories when I was a teenager, having to imagine the place. Now this this picture. It has retained its (almost) spherical shape despite the bombardment of asteriods, but no plains. A paleoworld.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (1) Jun 12, 2015
Funny that they chose to put a synthetic image to illustrate this article; the image is extracted from a 3D flyby animation. For close-ups of Ceres look at this gallery: http://dawn.jpl.n...;start=0 Concerning the 3D flyby animation, I hope you did not miss the link: http://www.jpl.na...?id=1380

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.