|This image, taken 147,000 miles from Ceres by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, is part of a series of views representing the best look so far at the dwarf planet. The spacecraft is set to enter orbit March 6. (NASA)|
“What we expect at Ceres is to be surprised, so it’s getting off to a good start,” said deputy principal investigator Carol Raymond.
The images, taken 147,000 miles from Ceres on Jan. 25, are 30% higher-resolution than the images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004. They measure 43 pixels wide, a significant improvement over Dawn’s images from earlier this month, which were 27 pixels across.
The images show significant brightness and darkness variations over the surface – particularly a bright spot gleaming in the northern hemisphere and darker spots in the southern hemisphere. While the scientists were aware of those major spots, they weren’t expecting to see quite so much texture on the surface, said Raymond, a geophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Ceres is fairly warm by ice-world standards; temperatures generally range from 180 to 240 Kelvin (or minus-136 degrees Fahrenheit to minus-28 degrees Fahrenheit), Raymond said. Theoretically, the ice on Ceres’ surface should start to flow as it warms up, smoothing out any bumps such as those from impact craters. But the brightness variations across the surface make it appear very rough, she said.
“This is just starting to illuminate the fact that Ceres is one of these unique bodies that has astrobiological potential … and it’s just continued to become more intriguing as we’ve been marching inexorably closer,” she added.
Ceres was not the first stop in Dawn’s 3-billion-mile journey. The first was the protoplanet Vesta, which is vastly different from its fellow mega-asteroid, Ceres. Where Vesta is dry and lumpy, Ceres is icy and round, massive enough to have been pulled into a planet-like shape. Scientists want to find out why these two space-fossils from the early solar system ended up with such different geophysical life stories.
At least with Vesta, there were meteorites linked to the asteroid that planetary scientists can study, Raymond pointed out. For Ceres, there are no such space rocks found on Earth – so the researchers have somewhat less of an idea of what to expect.
“I am excited,” Raymond said. “Just having had the wild ride at Vesta, I’m also just in awe of what’s going to happen. It’s going to be amazing.”