Ceres Minor Planet

Ceres Takes Center Stage[1]

The editors of Astronomy deem the discoveries about the minor planet, Ceres, in our Solar System, the 5th most important astronomy story of 2015.

These bright features shown in the crater in the image at left were spotted by NASA’s Dawn mission. They are likely salt deposits.

Since March 6 (2015) NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been in orbit around Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt lying between Mars and Jupiter. For a full recap of the spacecraft’s adventures and discoveries, see “Dawn mission reveals dwarf planet Ceres,” in the issue of Astronomy listed below (pp. 44-49). Dawn continued its studies until June 2016. Ceres is the second asteroid Dawn orbited; the first was Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012.

Ceres’ pockmarked surface is riddled with craters like those seen at Saturn’s icy moons. “The features are pretty consistent with an ice-rich crust,” said Dawn planetary geologist Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston in a press statement. The spacecraft has mapped the heights of surface features like craters and mountains.

Bright spots on the dwarf planet’s surface also have mystified planetary scientists. These reflective regions first came into view at the beginning of 2015 and have since resolved into a multitude of spots. They sit within Ceres’ northern Occator Crater, which spans 57 miles and is 2.5 miles deep. Researchers at first believed they were ices or salts but bad luck repeatedly stymied their efforts to gain spectra of the mysterious spots. Based on the reduced reflectivity of the spots, however, the consensus is turning to salt.

In August, Dawn had reached its penultimate orbit, circling Ceres from 910 miles out. A few months later, the spacecraft transitioned to its final science orbit, at just 230 miles above the surface

In addition to mapping the surface and measuring the heights of the mountains and craters on Ceres, Dawn worked to learn about the composition of materials on the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft also measured how different locations on Ceres pull with more or less gravity. The answers will let astronomers map the world’s gravity and learn how the dwarf planet’s rocky interior is distributed.

[1] See “Ceres Takes Center Stage,” Astronomy (44, 1, 2016, p. 28)

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