After months of anticipation, NASA scientists have finally produced a detailed color map of Ceres. Our first detailed look at the dwarf planet's pitted surface reveals it is a geologically complex place.
This image was constructed from images pulled in by NASA's Dawn spacecraft as it was still approaching Ceres and prior to it settling into orbit this past March.
It's not a true color map, but rather an enhanced view that reveals details not normally detectable by the human eye. This was done to highlight color differences across the surface so that the subtle physical properties and composition of surface materials could be brought out. Researchers say these materials tell an intriguing story.
"This dwarf planet was not just an inert rock throughout its history. It was active, with processes that resulted in different materials in different regions. We are beginning to capture that diversity in our color images," noted Dawn mission lead investigator Chris Russell in a statement.
As expected, its surface is riddled with craters — but there are very few large impact craters, which comes as a surprise.
And, of course, there are those mysterious bright spots in the northern hemisphere, the sources of which are still unknown. The imaging spectrometer aboard Dawn has been examining variances in Ceres's surface temperature, showing that the different bright spots on the surface are acting differently. The brightest of the spots — located in a crater 57 miles (92 km) wide — is in a region that features a temperature similar to the immediate surroundings. But a different bright spot is located in a region that's cooler than the rest of the surface.
Separate observations from the Hubble Space Telescope suggest there may be as many as 10 bright regions on Ceres's surface.
Scientists will hopefully learn more when Dawn begins its first intensive science phase on April 23 at which time it will scan the surface from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,500 km).
"The bright spots continue to fascinate the science team, but we will have to wait until we get closer and are able to resolve them before we can determine their source," said Russell.
[ NASA ]
Image Credits: Top: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA; White spots: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF