Won’t you look at that! Here’s a view of Ceres captured by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 12, 2015, from a distance of about 52,000 miles (83,000 km). No longer just a grey sphere with some vague bright spots, actual features can now be resolved – craters, mountains, and scarps that quite literally no one has ever seen before! Fantastic!
Two images were captured by Dawn’s framing camera as Ceres rotated within view over the course of its 9-hour day. See both below:
These images have a resolution of 4.9 miles (7.8 km) per pixel. Needless to say these are the sharpest views of Ceres ever acquired (as will be pretty much every one captured from now on.)
“What has been glimpsed as little more than a faint smudge of light amidst the stars for more than two centuries is finally coming into focus. The first dwarf planet discovered (129 years before Pluto), the largest body between the sun and Pluto that a spacecraft has not yet visited, is starting to reveal its secrets. Dawn is seeing sights never before beheld, and all of humankind is along for the extraordinary experience.”
– Marc Rayman, Dawn Mission Director at JPL (source)
Still on its steady ion-propelled approach, Dawn will enter permanent orbit around the 590-mile-wide Ceres on March 6.
Like Pluto, Ceres was once considered a planet. Discovered in 1801, it was later categorized as an asteroid (it resides in the main belt) and then as a dwarf planet. (Of course, to planetary scientists everything out there that isn’t a star is a planet of some sort but that’s another story. 😉 )
As amazing as it is to see Ceres so clearly for the first time, scientists are already finding lots of features to raise questions about – specifically all of the bright regions dotting its surface, including the large northern one that was spotted in Hubble images over a decade ago.
“As we slowly approach the stage, our eyes transfixed on Ceres and her planetary dance, we find she has beguiled us but left us none the wiser,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission at UCLA. “We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled.”