Topographic map of Ceres. Purple is low, red is high. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
As July draws to a close and August begins, the cycle of the seasons can seem to be advancing quicker than ever. Even with some of the hottest weeks yet come, and Labor Day more than a full month away, the prevalence of back to school sales and planning for last minute beach trips can make summer 2015 seem as though it is already in the history column. It is a silly thing really, a fact of life which will soon be underscored by Halloween sales merchandise and 24 hour Christmas radio stations showing up far sooner than any rationale human could expect or want. The summer of 2015 however, as wondrously presented by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, is far from over, and some of the biggest highlights have yet to come.
Even as the New Horizon’s spacecraft continues to speed away from the Pluto-Charon system, the equally remarkable Dawn spacecraft is spiraling ever closer to what will be its 3rd science orbit above fellow dwarf planet Ceres, a much closer and more hospitable destination for eventual human exploration. The new altitude will be at 900 miles, making it three times closer than its previous orbit and hopefully close enough to allow for new insight into this icy world of peaks, valleys and of course, mysterious bright spots. As the NASA image above depicts, Ceres has a surprising range of topography, with a difference of nine miles between the highest peaks and the lowest valleys, all on a dwarf planet which is only 584 miles in diameter to begin with.
As a preview of coming attractions, NASA released this fly-over video based on images obtained from Dawn’s initial mapping orbit of 8,400 miles and from a navigational phase at 3,200 miles. As the video points out at the conclusion, the apparent vertical differences are exaggerated for effect. With the ion powered spacecraft expected to reach its new orbit in mid-August, one can expect this Space Science Summer to end on high note, with no special effects required. And at least when the yellow buses begin to roll again, science classrooms should not lack for interesting subject matter.