Ceres flyover

Do you feel like an astronaut? Well then, take a cruise over the dwarf planet Ceres recently studied by the Dawn spacecraft, a mission of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. The video is quite incredible.

You’ll feel like Buzz Aldrin as you fly over a prominent mountain with bright streaks on its steep slopes. These markings are especially fascinating to scientists.

It’s been said that the peak’s shape is like a cone or a pyramid. It appears to be about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, with respect to the surface around it. If correct, then the mountain has the same elevation as Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park in Alaska, the highest point in North America.

Also puzzling to scientists is Occator (oh-KAH-tor) crater, home to Ceres’ brightest spots. A new animation simulates the experience of a close flyover of this area. The crater takes its name from the Roman agriculture deity of harrowing, a method of pulverizing and smoothing soil.

In examining the way Occator’s bright spots reflect light at different wavelengths, the Dawn science team has not found evidence that is consistent with ice. The spots’ albedo – a measure of the amount of light reflected – is also lower than predictions for concentrations of ice at the surface.

The science team is continuing to evaluate the data and discuss theories about those bright spots. They are now comparing the spots with the reflective properties of salt, but they still remain puzzled. The group waits for new, higher-resolution data from the mission’s next orbital phase.

An animation of Ceres’ overall geography, which is also available in 3-D, shows these features in context.

Ceres is the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Now scientists say they have revised their original estimate of Ceres’ average diameter to be 584 miles (940 kilometers). The previous estimate was 590 miles (950 kilometers).

Dawn will resume its observations of Ceres in mid-August from an altitude of 900 miles (less than 1,500 kilometers), or three times closer to Ceres than its previous orbit.

On March 6, 2015, Dawn became the first mission to reach a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct extraterrestrial targets. It conducted extensive observations of Vesta in 2011-2012.


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