Dawn Mission: First images of Ceres from the lowest orbit altitude

The Dawn probe has moved to a low orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres in the Asteroid Belt. Here are some of the first pictures returned:

Lowdown on Ceres: Images From Dawn’s Closest Orbit

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, cruising in its lowest and final orbit at dwarf planet Ceres, has delivered the first images from its best-ever viewpoint. The new images showcase details of the cratered and fractured surface. 3-D versions of two of these views are also available.

These views of Ceres, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on December 10, shows an area in the southern mid-latitudes of the dwarf planet. They are located at approximately 38.1 south latitude, 209.7 east longitude, around a crater chain called Gerber Catena. Many of the troughs and grooves on Ceres were likely formed as a result of impacts, but some appear to be tectonic, reflecting internal stresses that broke the crust. […] The spacecraft took these images in its low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) from an approximate distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres.
Dawn took these images of the southern hemisphere of Ceres on Dec. 10, at an approximate altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), which is its lowest-ever orbital altitude. Dawn will remain at this altitude for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward. The resolution of the new images is about 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.

Among the striking views is a chain of craters called Gerber Catena, located just west of the large crater Urvara. Troughs are common on larger planetary bodies, caused by contraction, impact stresses and the loading of the crust by large mountains — Olympus Mons on Mars is one example. The fracturing found all across Ceres’ surface indicates that similar processes may have occurred there, despite its smaller size (the average diameter of Ceres is 584 miles, or 940 kilometers). Many of the troughs and grooves on Ceres were likely formed as a result of impacts, but some appear to be tectonic, reflecting internal stresses that broke the crust.

This view of Ceres, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on December 10, shows an area in southern hemisphere of the dwarf planet. It is located at approximately 85.6 south longitude, 176.6 east longitude. This part of Ceres, near the south pole, has such long shadows because, from the perspective of this location, the sun is near the horizon. At the time this image was taken, the sun was 4 degrees north of the equator. If you were standing this close to Ceres’ south pole, the sun would never get high in the sky during the course of a nine-hour Cerean day. The spacecraft took this image in its low-altitude mapping orbit from an approximate distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres.
“Why they are so prominent is not yet understood, but they are probably related to the complex crustal structure of Ceres,” said Paul Schenk, a Dawn science team member at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston.

The images were taken as part of a test of Dawn’s backup framing camera. The primary framing camera, which is essentially identical, began its imaging campaign at this lowest orbit on Dec. 16. Both cameras are healthy.

Dawn’s other instruments also began their intense period of observations this month. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will help identify minerals by looking at how various wavelengths of light are reflected by the surface of Ceres. The gamma ray and neutron detector is also active. By measuring the energies and numbers of gamma rays and neutrons, two components of nuclear radiation, it will help scientists determine the abundances of some elements on Ceres.

This view of Ceres, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on December 10, shows an area in the southern mid-latitudes of the dwarf planet. It is located in an area around a crater chain called Samhain Catena, at approximately 23.2 south latitude, 216.8 east longitude. The spacecraft took this image in its low-altitude mapping orbit from an approximate distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres.
Earlier in December, Dawn science team members revealed that the bright material found in such notable craters as Occator is consistent with salt — and proposed that a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite may be present. A different group of Dawn scientists found that Ceres also contains ammoniated clays. Because ammonia is abundant in the outer solar system, this finding suggests that Ceres could have formed in the vicinity of Neptune and migrated inward, or formed in place with material that migrated in from the outer solar system.

“As we take the highest-resolution data ever from Ceres, we will continue to examine our hypotheses and uncover even more surprises about this mysterious world,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first mission outside the Earth-moon system to orbit two distinct solar system targets. It orbited protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

Dawn’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit: dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission

More information about Dawn is available at the following sites:

Video: Another view of the Falcon 9 booster landing

Update: Here is a view of the landing as seen from a helicopter hovering nearby:

And here is a diagram of how the booster flew back to the Cape after separating from the upper stage (click on image for larger version):

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And here is a day time shot of the landing pad:

First look at our massive new Landing Zone 1

A photo posted by SpaceX (@spacex) on

This image was made with two long exposures, one during the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and the second during the return of the first stage:

ORBCOMM-2 First-Stage Landing

Wonderful view of earth rising above the Moon’s horizon

A great picture from the Moon:

NASA Releases New High-Res Earthrise Image

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) recently captured a unique view of Earth from the spacecraft’s vantage point in orbit around the moon.

earth_and_limb_m1199291564l_color_2stretch_mask_0[1]Click for larger version.

“The image is simply stunning,” said Noah Petro, Deputy Project Scientist for LRO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The image of the Earth evokes the famous ‘Blue Marble’ image taken by Astronaut Harrison Schmitt during Apollo 17, 43 years ago, which also showed Africa prominently in the picture.”

In this composite image we see Earth appear to rise over the lunar horizon from the viewpoint of the spacecraft, with the center of the Earth just off the coast of Liberia (at 4.04 degrees North, 12.44 degrees West). The large tan area in the upper right is the Sahara Desert, and just beyond is Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America are visible to the left. On the moon, we get a glimpse of the crater Compton, which is located just beyond the eastern limb of the moon, on the lunar farside.

LRO was launched on June 18, 2009, and has collected a treasure trove of data with its seven powerful instruments, making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the moon. LRO experiences 12 earthrises every day; however the spacecraft is almost always busy imaging the lunar surface so only rarely does an opportunity arise such that its camera instrument can capture a view of Earth. Occasionally LRO points off into space to acquire observations of the extremely thin lunar atmosphere and perform instrument calibration measurements. During these movements sometimes Earth (and other planets) pass through the camera’s field of view and dramatic images such as the one shown here are acquired.

This image was composed from a series of images taken Oct. 12, when LRO was about 83 miles (134 kilometers) above the moon’s farside crater Compton. Capturing an image of the Earth and moon with LRO’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) instrument is a complicated task. First the spacecraft must be rolled to the side (in this case 67 degrees), then the spacecraft slews with the direction of travel to maximize the width of the lunar horizon in LROC’s Narrow Angle Camera image. All this takes place while LRO is traveling faster than 3,580 miles per hour (over 1,600 meters per second) relative to the lunar surface below the spacecraft!

The high-resolution Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) on LRO takes black-and-white images, while the lower resolution Wide Angle Camera (WAC) takes color images, so you might wonder how we got a high-resolution picture of the Earth in color. Since the spacecraft, Earth, and moon are all in motion, we had to do some special processing to create an image that represents the view of the Earth and moon at one particular time. The final Earth image contains both WAC and NAC information. WAC provides the color, and the NAC provides high-resolution detail.

“From the Earth, the daily moonrise and moonset are always inspiring moments,” said Mark Robinson of Arizona State University in Tempe, principal investigator for LROC. “However, lunar astronauts will see something very different: viewed from the lunar surface, the Earth never rises or sets. Since the moon is tidally locked, Earth is always in the same spot above the horizon, varying only a small amount with the slight wobble of the moon. The Earth may not move across the ‘sky’, but the view is not static. Future astronauts will see the continents rotate in and out of view and the ever-changing pattern of clouds will always catch one’s eye, at least on the nearside. The Earth is never visible from the farside; imagine a sky with no Earth or moon – what will farside explorers think with no Earth overhead?”

NASA’s first Earthrise image was taken with the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft in 1966. Perhaps NASA’s most iconic Earthrise photo was taken by the crew of the Apollo 8 mission as the spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts — Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders — held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Said Lovell, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”