Scientists from NASA’s Dawn mission unveiled new images from the spacecraft’s lowest orbit at Ceres, including highly-anticipated views of Occator Crater, at the 47th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, on Tuesday.
Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres, the dwarf planet that Dawn has explored since early 2015. The latest images, taken from 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface of Ceres, reveal a dome in a smooth-walled pit in the bright center of the crater. Numerous linear features and fractures crisscross the top and flanks of this dome. Prominent fractures also surround the dome and run through smaller, bright regions found within the crater.
“Before Dawn began its intensive observations of Ceres last year, Occator Crater looked to be one large bright area. Now, with the latest close views, we can see complex features that provide new mysteries to investigate,” said Ralf Jaumann, planetary scientist and Dawn co-investigator at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin. “The intricate geometry of the crater interior suggests geologic activity in the recent past, but we will need to complete detailed geologic mapping of the crater in order to test hypotheses for its formation.”
The team also released an enhanced color map of the surface of Ceres, highlighting the diversity of surface materials and their relationships to surface morphology. Scientists have been studying the shapes of craters and their distribution with great interest. Ceres does not have as many large impact basins as scientists expected, but the number of smaller craters generally matches their predictions. The blue material highlighted in the color map is related to flows, smooth plains and mountains, which appear to be very young surface features.
“Although impact processes dominate the surface geology on Ceres, we have identified specific color variations on the surface indicating material alterations that are due to a complex interaction of the impact process and the subsurface composition,” Jaumann said. “Additionally, this gives evidence for a subsurface layer enriched in ice and volatiles.”
Data relevant to the possibility of subsurface ice is also emerging from Dawn’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND), which began acquiring its primary data set in December. Neutrons and gamma rays produced by cosmic ray interactions with surface materials provide a fingerprint of Ceres’ chemical makeup. The measurements are sensitive to elemental composition of the topmost yard (meter) of the regolith.
In Dawn’s lowest-altitude orbit, the instrument has detected fewer neutrons near the poles of Ceres than at the equator, which indicates increased hydrogen concentration at high latitudes. As hydrogen is a principal constituent of water, water ice could be present close to the surface in polar regions.
“Our analyses will test a longstanding prediction that water ice can survive just beneath Ceres’ cold, high-latitude surface for billions of years,” said Tom Prettyman, the lead for GRaND and Dawn co-investigator at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona.