Ceres Photographed on January 15 / Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Closing in on its March 6 rendezvous with the dwarf planet Ceres, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has provided its best image yet of the enigmatic ice world which is the largest object in the main asteroid belt.
The images, shown below in a looped 2 second YouTube video depict what appears to be a cratered surface (no surprise there) as well as a mysterious bright white spot in the northern hemisphere which has scientists baffled, at least for now.
Ceres, with an average diameter of 590 miles, is the first dwarf planet to be visited by a spacecraft, and unlike the New Horizons spacecraft, which will fly by former planet Pluto on July 14th, Dawn will enter orbit around its target and continue to operate for perhaps as long as 16 months. The limiting factor is Dawn’s hobbled reaction wheels, which are forcing mission controllers to tap a rapidly dwindling supply of hydrazine fuel to maintain three axis control.
Thought to be mostly water ice surrounding a rocky core, some scientists believe Ceres could also harbor a hidden ocean beneath its icy mantle, a trait which is proving to be surprisingly common in the outer solar system, where Jupiter’s Europa, Saturn’s Enceladus and possibly a host of other moons are water worlds as well.
What sets Ceres apart however, is its relative proximity to both Earth and Mars, as well as a location which is thankfully free of the merciless radiation which characterizes the Jovian system, yet still close enough to the Sun to offer usable concentrations of solar power. Bitterly cold, and lacking even the diminished comparative gravity of our own Moon, in its own way, Ceres may be an ideal candidate for human exploration and utilization. And we are about to find out for sure.