Ceres: an oceanic world in the asteroid belt

The strange white spots of Ceres

The Dawn mission was launched in 2007 with an unconventional ion engine that left it in orbit around Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt, for 14 months before venturing into Ceres in 2012. No mission had ever put two alien worlds into orbit before.

“Vesta is a dry body almost like the moon,” said Carol Raymond, principal investigator for Dawn, JPL. Astronomy. “We knew that Ceres was a very water-rich object that had retained volatile substances from the time it was formed. The two were sitting there like plums. The fruit at your fingertips.

Ceres began revealing her secrets to astronomers with Dawn’s first glimpses of the dwarf planet in early 2015. A pair of eerie white spots stood out from afar, glowing like cat eyes in the dark. More of these brilliant features became apparent as we approached, and they found themselves at the center of scientists’ efforts to understand Ceres.

Much of Ceres’ story was apparent soon after Dawn arrived, but scientists still believed they had more to learn, so NASA extended Dawn’s mission for a second run. This allowed the spacecraft to continue collecting data until 2018, when it eventually ran out of fuel. This last batch of research was collected during this extended phase.

And as Dawn gathered higher resolution images, she began to unveil intimate details of the world’s surface and its ancient history. Among other things, the spacecraft spotted an isolated mountain stretching some 21,000 feet (6,400 meters) above the surface, taller than Denali, the highest peak in North America.

The Ceres White Spots are found inside Occator Crater, which stretches 57 miles (92 kilometers) into the world’s northern hemisphere. Another place with a prominent light spot is in the smaller Haulani crater, named after the Hawaiian plant goddess. It is one of the youngest characteristics of the dwarf planet.

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