New Clues to Ceres’ Bright Spots and Origins

NASA/JPL press release

Ceres reveals some of its well-kept secrets in two new studies in the journal Nature, thanks to data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. They include highly anticipated insights about mysterious bright features found all over the dwarf planet’s surface.

Ceres Spots
This false color image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of Ceres’ Occator Crater shows differences in surface composition.
Credit: NASA/JPL
In one study, scientists identify this bright material as a kind of salt. The second study suggests the detection of ammonia-rich clays, raising questions about how Ceres formed.

About the Bright Spots

Ceres has more than 130 bright areas, and most of them are associated with impact craters. Study authors, led by Andreas Nathues at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, write that the bright material is consistent with a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite. A different type of magnesium sulfate is familiar on Earth as Epsom salt.

Nathues and colleagues, using images from Dawn’s framing camera, suggest that these salt-rich areas were left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids would have unearthed the mixture of ice and salt, they say.

“The global nature of Ceres’ bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice,” Nathues said.

A New Look at Occator

The surface of Ceres, whose average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers), is generally dark — similar in brightness to fresh asphalt — study authors wrote. The bright patches that pepper the surface represent a large range of brightness, with the brightest areas reflecting about 50 percent of sunlight shining on the area. But there has not been unambiguous detection of water ice on Ceres; higher-resolution data are needed to settle this question.

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The Bright Spots on Ceres

As the Dawn spacecraft settles into lower orbits around Ceres the photos of this small world are of ever better resolution. The mysterious bright spots have slowly resolved into an interesting arrangement of multiple spots. Despite many wild claims on YouTube and UFO websites of alien cities or crashed spacecraft, the spots are looking more and more like a set of ice outcroppings. They are still fascinating, if just a bit more ordinary than some would hope.

My bet? Some sort of cryovolcano.

JPL Press release

NASA’s Dawn mission captured a sequence of images, taken for navigation purposes, of dwarf planet Ceres on May 16, 2015. The image showcases the group of the brightest spots on Ceres, which continue to mystify scientists. It was taken from a distance of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) and has a resolution of 2,250 feet (700 meters) per pixel.

“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles, said recently.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, marking the first time a spacecraft has orbited a dwarf planet. Previously, the spacecraft explored giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months from 2011 to 2012. Dawn has the distinction of being the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets.

The spacecraft has been using its ion propulsion system to maneuver to its second mapping orbit at Ceres, which it will reach on June 6. The spacecraft will remain at a distance of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) from the dwarf planet until June 30. Afterward, it will make its way to lower orbits.

Ceres White Spots
This image of Ceres is part of a sequence taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 16, 2015, from a distance of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Unusual Asteroid Suspected of Spinning to Explosion

W. M Keck Observatory press release

A team led by astronomers from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, recently used the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to observe and measure a rare class of “active asteroids” that spontaneously emit dust and have been confounding scientists for years. The team was able to measure the rotational speed of one of these objects, suggesting the asteroid spun so fast it burst, ejecting dust and newly discovered fragments in a trail behind it. The findings are being published in Astrophysical Journal Letters on March 20, 2015.

P/2012 F5
Active asteroid P/2012 F5 captured by Keck II/DEIMOS in mid-2014. Credit: M. Drahaus, W. Waniak (OAUJ) / W. M. Keck Observatory
Unlike the hundreds of thousands of asteroids in the main belt of our solar system, which move cleanly along their orbits, active asteroids were discovered several years ago mimicking comets with their tails formed by calm, long lasting ice sublimation.

Then in 2010 a new type of active asteroid was discovered, which ejected dust like a shot without an obvious reason. Scientist gravitated around two possible hypotheses. One states the explosion is a result of a hypervelocity collision with another minor object. The second popular explanation describes it as a consequence of “rotational disruption”, a process of launching dust and fragments by spinning so fast, the large centrifugal forces produced exceed the object’s own gravity, causing it to break apart. Rotational disruption is the expected final state of what is called the YORP effect – a slow evolution of the rotation rate due to asymmetric emission of heat.

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2004 BL86 Passes By

Asteroid 2004 BL86 is not small, it is large enough for astronomers to take notice as it passed near the earth yesterday at a close, but safe distance of 745,000 miles. Numerous telescopes were trained on this object as it passed by, including a deep space radar at Goldstone that confirmed that the asteroid is about 1,100 feet in diameter. They did get a surprise as well, 2004 BL86 has a small moon.

Close approach was earlier in the day, thus it was some hours after that I was able to photograph the asteroid from Hawaii. The most difficult part in taking the photo is locating the object. An asteroid this close by will move across the sky very quickly. To locate the asteroid I used a high precision ephemeris generated by the JPL Horizons Database with time intervals of every half hour. This was necessary as the asteroid was moving several degrees each hour. If I used coordinates even an hour off it would have been out of the frame. It took half an hour of hunting, comparing frames taken a couple minutes apart.

Below is the streak created as the asteroid moves over the course of an eight minute exposure…

2004 BL86
Asteroid 2004 BL86 just after close approach on January 26, 2015

Distant Asteroid Revealed to be a Complex Mini World

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

After 8 years of observations scientists from the SETI Institute have found an exotic orbit for the largest Trojan asteroid, (624) Hektor—the only one known to possess a moon. The formation of this system made of a dual primary and a small moon is still a mystery, but they found the asteroid could be a captured Kuiper body product of the reshuffling of giant planets in our solar system. The results are being published today in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

624 Hektor NIRC2
Two adaptive optics observations made in July 2006 and October 2008 with the Keck II telescope. The center of each image shows the elongated shape of Hektor. The small, faint moon is shown in the cyan circle. Credit WMKO/Marchis
This study, based on W. M. Keck Observatory data and photometric observations from telescopes throughout the world, suggests that the asteroid and its moon are products of the collision of two icy asteroids. This work sheds light on the complex youth of our solar system, when the building blocks that formed the core of giant planets and their satellites were tossed around or captured during the giant planet migrations.

In 2006, a small team of astronomers led by Franck Marchis, astronomer at the Carl Sagan center of the SETI Institute, detected the presence of a small 12 km diameter moon around the large Trojan asteroid (624) Hektor. They used the 10 m Keck II telescope atop Mauna Kea, fitted with the NIRC-2 (the Near-Infrared Camera 2) instrument behind the adaptive optics and laser guide star system (LGS-AO).

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Telescopes Large and Small Team Up to Study Triple Asteroid

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Combining observations from the world’s largest telescopes with small telescopes used by amateur astronomers, a team of scientists discovered that the large main-belt asteroid (87) Sylvia has a complex interior, thanks to the presence of two moons orbiting the main asteroid, and probably linked to the way the multiple system was formed. The findings are being revealed today, October 7, at the 45th annual Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Sylvia Artist Impression
Artistic representation of the triple asteroid system showing the large 270-km asteroid Sylvia surrounded by its two moons, Romulus and Remus. Credit: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute
This work illustrates a new trend in astronomy in which backyard amateur astronomers team up with professional astronomers to expand our knowledge of our solar system. The study of multiple asteroids such as (87) Sylvia gives astronomers an opportunity to peek through the past history of our solar system and constrain the internal composition of asteroids. The two moons of (87) Sylvia were discovered in 2005.

The team, led by Franck Marchis, senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, has continued to observe this triple asteroid system by gathering 66 adaptive optics observations from 8-10m class telescopes including those at the W. M. Keck Observatory, the European Southern Observatory, and Gemini North.

“Because (87) Sylvia is a large, bright asteroid located in the main belt, it is a great target for the first generation of adaptive optics systems available on these large telescopes. We have combined data from our team with archival data to get a good understanding of the orbits of these moons,” Marchis said.

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Asteroid 2008 QE2 Ephemeris

Planning to make a go at photographing asteroid 2008 QE2 as it passes the Earth. Before I can do that a little planning is in order. Minor questions… Is it above the horizon near close approach, in my nighttime sky? It turns out this object will be available for observation.

The table below is a precision ephemeris generated by the NASA HORIZONS web interface for Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i. Listed are celestial coordinates, time, local elevation and azimuth, magnitude and distance. The marks after the time column indicate daylight (*), twilight (A) and moonlight (M).

From the data it is clear that the evening of May 30th (May 31st UT) allows observation from Hawai’i, at an elevation of ~46° a few hours after dark. Nicely placed and nicely timed for observation. Close approach is actually the next day, but the difference is minor. The next evening allows a second chance at the observation while the asteroid is still close.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 to Sail Past Earth

JPL press release

On May 31, 2013, asteroid 1998 QE2 will sail serenely past Earth, getting no closer than about 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers), or about 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon. And while QE2 is not of much interest to those astronomers and scientists on the lookout for hazardous asteroids, it is of interest to those who dabble in radar astronomy and have a 230-foot (70-meter) — or larger — radar telescope at their disposal.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 Orbit
The orbit for asteroid 1998 QE2 earth approach on 31 May 2013. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“Asteroid 1998 QE2 will be an outstanding radar imaging target at Goldstone and Arecibo and we expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Whenever an asteroid approaches this closely, it provides an important scientific opportunity to study it in detail to understand its size, shape, rotation, surface features, and what they can tell us about its origin. We will also use new radar measurements of the asteroid’s distance and velocity to improve our calculation of its orbit and compute its motion farther into the future than we could otherwise.”

The closest approach of the asteroid occurs on May 31 at 1:59 p.m. Pacific (4:59 p.m. Eastern / 20:59 UTC). This is the closest approach the asteroid will make to Earth for at least the next two centuries. Asteroid 1998 QE2 was discovered on Aug. 19, 1998, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program near Socorro, New Mexico.

The asteroid, which is believed to be about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) or nine Queen Elizabeth 2 ship-lengths in size, is not named after that 12-decked, transatlantic-crossing flagship for the Cunard Line. Instead, the name is assigned by the NASA-supported Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., which gives each newly discovered asteroid a provisional designation starting with the year of first detection, along with an alphanumeric code indicating the half-month it was discovered, and the sequence within that half-month.

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Asteroid Flyby

We are going to get buzzed Tuesday. A reasonably large asteroid will pass quite close to the Earth, well inside lunar orbit. Asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass 325,000 km (202,000 mi) from the Earth. This is a good sized object, about 400m (1300ft) in diameter, large enough to create significant damage if it were to collide. We do know that the object will safely miss, this time. It is an object to track carefully. Data from this encounter and a future encounter with Venus in 2029 will set YU55 up for another encounter with Earth in 2041. Again we believe it will miss, but it will be close.

Keck 2 will be observing YU55 using adaptive optics and NIRC2 in an attempt to get high resolution imagery of the asteroid. It is quite convenient that this interesting asteroid is passing close to Earth, it will be in easy reach of our best astronomical instrumentation. I suspect I will be spending a little time in Keck 2 remote operations Tuesday night to get a look for myself.

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Unaided Vesta and a Moonbow

See a naked eye asteroid? Why not? I had never seen an asteroid with the unaided eye before and here was a good chance. Was it worth setting the alarm clock for 2am? Sure, you cannot answer that with a no if you are truly an amateur astronomer.

Off goes the alarm… wife starts grumbling… throw a few things in the vehicle… a few more complaints from my wife now up and awake… feed the cats… A kiss… and off into the dark. I setup at the end of the development where the streetlights have yet to be turned on, at the end of a dead end road surrounded by lots that have been graded but not yet built on. While setting up the gear I discover I am not quite alone, listening to hooves clattering up the road towards me. Someone riding by moonlight? No, just three feral donkeys that wander past. Later, the calm was broken by a male donkey being, ah, quite energetic, just up the hill, and willing to tell the world about it.

Conditions could have been better, Jupiter was a swimming ball, so much for a little planetary viewing to pass the time awaiting moonset. Transparency was only so-so with the usual low altitude tropical haze and the occasional cloud scudding through. So just sit back and enjoy the night for a while, and try to ignore the loud braying that occasionally disturbed the otherwise peaceful night.

As I waited for the moon to set I noticed a bank of clouds approaching from the northeast. The usual cloud bank over the Kohala volcano was reaching out a little further than it usually does. This was a bit of a concern, when the trade winds are blowing this cloud bank usually forms over the Kohala and with it a heavy misting rain that drizzles constantly in Waimea. I looked about at my gear and decided to cover some of it up in case this cloud bank got closer.

And it did, and as usual the mist was falling ahead of it driven by the steady breeze. Combine a wall of mist and a setting bright moon and the unexpected can occur. I looked out to check the cloud’s position and quickly did a double take. Hanging there in the wall of mist was a beautiful, ghostly moonbow. Grab the camera time!

Camera, tripod, remote shutter release… dash 50yds to where the big power lines would not dominate the picture… hope not to find the donkeys that are around here somewhere… find a spot on the rocks of the ancient lava flow where I could setup the tripod without endangering the camera or my ankles… in the dark… focus the camera… in the dark… frame… program the shutter release for a one minute shot… fire! Time for two frames before the moonbow faded from sight. A quick check of the frames and victory! Got it!

Waimea Moonbow
Moonbow! 1min, Canon 20Da, 17mm@f/4 with the lights of Waimea at center

With the fading moonbow and the setting Moon I was able to return to my mission objective, Vesta without optical aid. Finding the asteroid was trivial, just starhop up from Jupiter or down from ζOph and there is was. Swung my little TV-76 to the correct location and there it was, right on the location plotted. Easy to see at about 5.5 mag. a little brighter than HIP80793 at 5.6 mag. that was located about 1°sp. Naked eye was tougher, there was a line of 4-4.2 mag. stars coming up from Sco that was relatively easy, but it took averted vision to find Vesta and then only occasionally as it would appear and dissapear before my eye. I was clearly being hampered by the lousy seeing and poor transparency down lower in the sky. I am sure from a better site, possibly up on the side of Mauna Kea without the moonlight it would be quite simple to spot. I will need to try again before this opposition is over. That will have to wait a bit until after full Moon.

Vesta 28May2007
Vesta (marked), Jupiter and Summer Milky Way, 40s, 17mm@f/4, fixed tripod