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Mysterious Bright Spots On Ceres Examined Closely By NASA’s Dawn Mission

05 July 2018

Ever since approaching Ceres, Dawn has relayed a massive chunk of scientific data and images showcasing the dwarf planet in its full glow. Why did researchers take a particular interest in Vesta and Ceres? Landslides are clearly visible on the rim.

Now, over three years into the mission, as a result of a set of extremely low orbits (which are expected to be the spacecraft's last), we have the closest images yet, taken from around 35 kilometres above the surface! However, recently, NASA's Dawn mission which orbits Ceres to find out more about this small planet flew at only 34 kilometers above Ceres' surface, taking a closer look at those shiny spots.

Dwarf planet Ceres - the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter - caught public attention back in 2015 when the Dawn spacecraft arrived and began snapping thousands of images of its cratered alien landscape. While the name might not ring a bell even among space enthusiasts, the "bright spots" contained within the crater should. The new elliptical orbit, which takes the probe from a little more than 20 miles (33 kilometers) above Ceres to a maximum distance around 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) will force Dawn to burn its remaining propellant faster, limiting its lifetime. So far, it's still unclear whether the faculae on Ceres were exposed "from a shallow, sub-surface reservoir of mineral-laden water, or from a deeper source of brines (liquid water enriched in salts) percolating upward through fractures", state NASA officials.

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In the past, the spacecraft had come as close as 240 miles (385 kilometers) of Ceres.

Commenting on the photo release, Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, likened the pioneering spacecraft to a "master artist".

And the low-altitude observations obtained with Dawn's other instruments, a gamma ray and neutron detector and a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, will reveal the composition of Ceres at finer scale, shedding new light on the origin of the materials found across Ceres' surface.

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Dawn's level mission is close to the end; Last week, the space shuttle had potentially fired its acquisition ion engine.

"The first views of Ceres obtained by Dawn beckoned us with a single, blinding bright spot", Dawn principal investigator Carol Raymond, also of JPL, said in the same statement. "While the extension of Dawn in ceras, it has been exciting to highlight the nature and history of this fascinating dwarf planet, and it is particularly appropriate that Don's final work will provide rich new data sets to test those principles".

Dawn entered Vesta's class from July 2011 to September 2012, when it left for Ceres. Mission controllers look forward to continued science from Dawn, but they have completed all planned firing sessions of the industrious engines.

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Mysterious Bright Spots On Ceres Examined Closely By NASA’s Dawn Mission