The Dawn space probe started sending pictures of the dwarf planet Ceres from its lowest orbit

Picture of the area called Gerber Catena with its craters, depression and fractures (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Picture of the area called Gerber Catena with its craters, depression and fractures (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Nearly three weeks ago NASA’s Dawn space probe reached its final orbit, at an altitude of about 380 kilometers (240 miles) over the dwarf planet Ceres. It will remain there indefinitely, meaning that it will keep that orbit until the end of its mission but at that point it won’t be moved. It’s its lowest orbit and from there Dawn immediately started taking the most detailed pictures and make new detections with its instruments.

After going down to its final orbit, the Dawn space probe started testing its backup camera, with positive results. The primary one, which is practically identical, works very well and some days later was used as well to take new photographs of Ceres’ surface.

The findings concerning the white spots and the presence of ammonia had much prominence and that’s understandable. The largest among these formations, the ones in the crater Occator, are really bright. The presence of ammonia raised questions about the origin of Ceres or at least of part of the materials that ended on this dwarf planet.

However, scientists are finding other geological features of Ceres very interesting as well. For example, the series of craters called Gerber Catena is characterized by depression and fractures that you expect to find on celestial bodies much larger than a dwarf planet.

Generally, it’s on planets that takes place the geological activity that causes contractions and stress in the crust leading to impacts or the formation of large mountains. The example given by NASA is Mount Olympus (Olympus Mons) on Mars, the largest volcano in the solar system with its 22 kilometers (16 miles) abundant of height.

Ceres is much smaller than Mars with its diameter of about 940 km (584 miles) but at least some of the formations seem to have tectonic origin with tensions within them that caused the breakup of its crust. According to Paul Schenk, a member of the scientific team of the Dawn mission, most likely the fractures are related to the complex structure of Ceres’ crust.

The Dawn space probe’s primary mission will continue at least until June 2016. Therefore there’s still a long time to collect many more data to find answers to the many questions that scientists are asking about Ceres. This little world could really hold many clues about the history of the solar system, confirming even more this mission’s value.

An area near Ceres' south pole (Photo NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
An area near Ceres’ south pole (Photo NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

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