NASA Spacecraft Gets Breathtakingly Close to Dwarf Planet

NASA           Occator Crater

NASA Occator Crater

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is one that we don't hear from very often these days, mainly because it spent seven years on its way to dwarf planet Ceres and it's been (very) slowly getting closer to the object ever since it arrived in 2015.

The bright deposits are made of sodium carbonate and are the largest observed outside of Earth.

The photos taken during the flyby show a strong contrast between the dark and bright materials on the surface.

Project manager Marc Rayman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says "acquiring these spectacular pictures has been one of the greatest challenges in Dawn's extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition, and the results are better than we had ever hoped".

A mosaic of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows a prominent mound of bright material on the western side of Cerealia Facula on dwarf planet Ceres.

Cerealia Facula is now believed to be the largest deposit of sodium carbonate on Ceres, right in the centre of Occator Crater.

Data from Dawn in the coming weeks may help resolve questions about the origin of the sodium carbonate deposits, whether they originated in a shallow, sub-surface reservoir or from a deeper source of salty water making its way to the surface through fractures.

Between 2011 and 2012 the space probe orbited the giant asteroid Vesta in the Asteroid Belt.

Gravity measurements might give NASA an idea about Ceres below the surface and gamma ray and neutron detectors will break down the dwarf planet's composition.

"The first views of Ceres obtained by Dawn beckoned us with a single, blinding bright spot", said Carol Raymond of JPL, Dawn's principal investigator.

The spacecraft will remain in orbit around Ceres when it runs out of fuel, but Dawn will end its mission because it will no longer able to point its solar arrays toward the sun, or aim its antenna toward Earth. "Unraveling the nature and history of this fascinating dwarf planet during the course of Dawn's extended stay at Ceres has been thrilling, and it is especially fitting that Dawn's last act will provide rich new data sets to test those theories".

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