NASA's Dawn mission has gotten the most detailed images of the Occator Crater on Ceres, given scientists their best view yet of the dwarf planet’s bright spots.
Measuring 57 miles across and 2.5 miles deep, the crater was known to contain the brightest area on Ceres. The latest images, taken from 240 miles above the surface of Ceres, reveal a dome – with fractures crisscrossing the top and flanks - in a smooth-walled pit in the bright center of the crater.
The conditions of the crater suggest that water-bearing material could have been exposed during a landslide or an impact - perhaps even a combination of the two events, according to Jean-Philippe Combe of the Bear Fight Institute Oxo is the only place on Ceres where water has been detected at the surface so far.
"We're excited to unveil these beautiful new images, especially Occator, which illustrate the complexity of the processes shaping Ceres' surface,” Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, said in a statement.
“Now that we can see Ceres' enigmatic bright spots, surface minerals and morphology in high resolution, we're busy working to figure out what processes shaped this unique dwarf planet,” she said. “By comparing Ceres with Vesta, we'll glean new insights about the early solar system."
Dawn made history last year as the first mission to reach a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct extraterrestrial targets - both of them in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The mission conducted extensive observations of Vesta during its 14-month orbit there in 2011-2012.
Soon after the Dawn Spacecraft entered Ceres orbit last year, the spots grabbed the attention of NASA scientists and the public at large. They mystified researchers and even prompted NASA to ask the public for help – inviting people to express their thoughts about them.
Recently, scientists believe they may have an explanation for the spots.
In a paper published in the journal Nature in December, Andreas Nathues and his colleagues documented 130 spots on Ceres ranging in brightness from the color of concrete to ocean ice. It also found these “unusual areas” of brightness are consistent with the presence of “hydrated magnesium sulfates mixed with dark background material.”
On Earth, a different type of magnesium sulfate is familiar as Epsom salt. The findings would also suggest Ceres is the first large body in the main asteroid belt to display "comet-like activity."