The Dawn Mission Nears Ceres

JPL press release

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has returned new images captured on approach to its historic orbit insertion at the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn will be the first mission to successfully visit a dwarf planet when it enters orbit around Ceres on Friday, March 6.

This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/ DLR/IDA
“Dawn is about to make history,” said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us.”

Recent images show numerous craters and unusual bright spots that scientists believe tell how Ceres, the first object discovered in our solar system’s asteroid belt, formed and whether its surface is changing. As the spacecraft spirals into closer and closer orbits around the dwarf planet, researchers will be looking for signs that these strange features are changing, which would suggest current geological activity.

“Studying Ceres allows us to do historical research in space, opening a window into the earliest chapter in the history of our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Data returned from Dawn could contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed.”

Dawn began its final approach phase toward Ceres in December. The spacecraft has taken several optical navigation images and made two rotation characterizations, allowing Ceres to be observed through its full nine-hour rotation. Since Jan. 25, Dawn has been delivering the highest-resolution images of Ceres ever captured, and they will continue to improve in quality as the spacecraft approaches.

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Ceres and Aliens

The bright dot on Ceres has the UFO community all a twitter.

The Dawn spacecraft observed Ceres for an hour on Jan. 13, 2015, from a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/ DLR/IDA
As the Dawn probe approaches Ceres each day brings ever higher resolution photos. The bright dot first showed up as a large white blotch on the disk. Not a huge surprise, even Earth based images showed areas of the dwarf planet were much brighter.

As the spacecraft neared the dot has been revealed to be quite small. Indeed the images are quite intriguing, a very bright dot with a smaller dot directly beside it. The two features are near the center of a fairly large impact crater.

This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/ DLR/IDA
Of course the images are intriguing. Whenever something this odd shows up in a NASA mission image there is a group of folks who go off the rails entirely, the UFO/alien community. I looked at the image and went “Hmmmm?”. Then as I sat for a moment I wondered what the UFO websites were saying about this photo. A quick sampling showed that the UFO/alien community has let speculation run rampant.

The articles and YouTube videos are popping up, fueled by the latest Dawn mission image releases… It is an alien city, a giant spacecraft, and, of course Ceres is a fragment of the destroyed planet Phaeton. After the buzz about the UFO in orbit around asteroid 2004 BL86 the UFO community is ready for something new. Even the British newspaper The Daily Mail has let this “alien” speculation seep into its reporting.

The planetary science community has a more likely theory for the dot, a cryo-volcano. It is known that Ceres harbors a great deal of water. A vent of some sort allowing water to escape into space from a subsurface deposit is not that unlikely. The process would not be that dissimilar to what we have observed on comets. The location of the feature at the center of an impact crater is also interesting. Note that there is another light colored feature at the center of another impact crater on the lower left of the latest image. An older, less active or dormant cryo-volcano?

When looking at the image you have to remember that the surface of most asteroids and comets is actually quite dark, about the same as charcoal. Ceres has a v-band albedo of 0.09, thus only 9% of the sunlight is reflected by the surface. Anything bright white, like fresh ice, is going to be stunningly bright in comparison.

When Dawn arrives at Ceres and settles into orbit we will have our answers, the images should show the phenomena in exquisite detail. We just have to wait a few months. It would be totally cool if the bright dot did turn out to be some sort of alien artifact. But I have to agree with the mission team, it is probably some form of cryo-volcano, also cool.

Saturn from Above

A spectacular image of Saturn from above. Even better, the image was assembled by an amateur astronomer, Gordan Ugarkovic, working with Cassini imagery taken on October 10th. Click on the image to zoom in, then zoom in some more! You can see exquisite data in the polar cloud-tops and in the rings. Keep an eye out for the shepherd moons at the edges of the various rings…

Saturn from Above
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. It was made by amateur image processor and Cassini fan Gordan Ugarkovic. This image has not been geometrically corrected for shifts in the spacecraft perspective and still has some camera artifacts.The mosaic was created from 12 image footprints with red, blue and green filters from Cassini’s imaging science subsystem. Ugarkovic used full color sets for 11 of the footprints and red and blue images for one footprint. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

Martian Devil

A desolate rocky plain, red, cold, dry, a scene from an alien world. In the distance there is movement, a swirling dust devil slowly works its way across the plain.

To truly appreciate such an image takes you to another world, so similar, yet so different from our own. The world is Mars, the scene is real, captured by the HiRISE camera orbiting aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I never get tired of these sort of pictures…

Martian Devil
A dust devil crossing the rocky Amazonis Planitia of Mars, image credit NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Saturnine Storm

Saturn Storm
The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini Press Release

This picture, captured on Feb. 25, 2011, was taken about 12 weeks after the storm began, and the clouds by this time had formed a tail that wrapped around the planet. Some of the clouds moved south and got caught up in a current that flows to the east (to the right) relative to the storm head. This tail, which appears as slightly blue clouds south and west (left) of the storm head, can be seen encountering the storm head in this view.

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Spectacular ISS Timelapse

My apologies if you have already seen this video, it is making the rounds. On the other hand it is so totally spectacular I just had to post it.

A series of time lapse sequences taken from the International Space Station. There are cities, seas, lightning storms and aurorae, star and skyglow and more. Hit the Vimeo icon for a better description than I can write. Turn off the room lights, expand to full screen and enjoy…

A Last Look at UARS

Just watched UARS go overhead. Possibly the last chance before it reenters the atmosphere tomorrow. Pretty too, I was outside Waimea and the satellite went right over Mauna Kea. The bright satellite was skimming through high cirrus lit by the last rosy glow of sunset. Notably brighter than the predicted -1 magnitude, I would say at least another mag brighter, with a couple flashes near -3 or -4.

Pits in the Ice

You know it is cold when the very air starts to freeze.

This is what happens in a Martian winter when no sunlight reaches the polar region. It grows so cold that the atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide, begins to freeze and fall to the ground as snow. Frozen carbon dioxide, dry ice, accumulates into a permanent polar cap. While the extent of this polar cap waxes and wanes with the Martian seasons, there is always some ice.

The image below, taken by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows of a section of the southern permanent polar cap. Late summer has caused much of the polar cap to sublimate (convert back to gas), exposing some of the rock under the ice.

Here much of the terrain is shaped by the annual freeze and thaw cycles. These pits are probably the result of these cycles and are about 60m (200ft) across. Soon the region will return to the darkness of winter and the pits will be re-buried in the ice.

Pits in the Polar Cap
Pits in the southern Martian polar cap exposed by late summer sunlight, image taken July 29th 2011, credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona