NASA has recently released the sharpest picture of the dwarf planet Ceres. The picture was taken by its Dawn spacecraft, which is scheduled to enter the planet’s orbit five weeks from now.
The 590-mile wide Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt. It was previously classified as an asteroid, but due to its particular features it was promoted to the rank of dwarf planet in the same year as Pluto.
Unlike other asteroids, Ceres contains at least 20 percent water and may also host a system of geysers on its surface. Scientists hope that the dwarf planet also host life, so they plan not to drop Dawn to its surface so they prevent possible contamination with Earth bacteria.
In 2012, Dawn also took several astonishing pictures of the icy asteroid Vesta. Now, at a distance of 140,000 miles (274,000 kilometers) away from Ceres, Dawn captured the best image of Ceres. The photos are 30 percent more accurate than previous images delivered by the Hubble Space Telescope, although Dawn’s optical instruments are not designed for long-range imaging.
Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute looked at the photos and explained that some darker spots on it might mark craters, while the “extended, ribbon-like structures” might be evidence of internal processes common to larger planets.
The new photos also show a white blotch on the northern region of the planet. Mr. Sykes explained that the spot was not ice because it has been caught in a picture by Hubble ten years ago and it was still there. If it were ice, it would have been disappeared in the meantime.
Some scientists also believe that the spot may mark mineral deposits from under the surface. Mr. Sykes also said that if the mineral deposits theory was correct, the deposits must be really recent because they usually get darker over time.
However, the mystery will get solved when Dawn starts its exploration mission of Ceres on March 6.
Dawn spacecraft is designed to first orbit Ceres at an altitude of 8,000 miles (nearly 13,000 kilometer), and later descend under 3,000 miles/ 4,800 km. At the end of its mission, Dawn would get closer to the dwarf planet’s surface and take close-ups pictures from less than 250 miles up. Also, the spacecraft will perform scientific tests and measurements of the planet’s atmosphere and weather system.
By early next summer, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will reach and explore another dwarf planet of our solar system, the remote and mysterious Pluto.
Image Source: IFL Science