Dawn Reveals Dramatic New Views of Occator Crater

To geologists on Earth Occator Crater's Vinalia Faculae region looks a lot like common volcanism. But the bright material here is mostly sodium carbonate also known as soda ash

Dawn Reveals Dramatic New Views of Occator Crater

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is one that we don't hear from very often these days, mainly because it spent seven years on its way to dwarf planet Ceres and it's been (very) slowly getting closer to the object ever since it arrived in 2015.

Here is a more zoomed-in view, highlighting the central deposits of sodium carbonate.

The latest pictures show a patch of bright salt on an elevated surface, resembling a mesa or butte.

Cerealia Facula is now believed to be the largest deposit of sodium carbonate on Ceres, right in the centre of Occator Crater.

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The space boffin said: "Acquiring these spectacular pictures has been one of the greatest challenges in Dawn's extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition, and the results are better than we had ever hoped".

The wealth of information contained in these images, and more that are planned in the coming weeks, will help address key, open questions about the origin of the faculae, the largest deposits of carbonates observed thus far outside Earth, and possibly Mars.

"Dawn is like a master artist, adding rich details to the otherworldly beauty in its intimate portrait of Ceres". New measurements from Dawn's lower orbit will also give researchers data with finer resolution on Ceres' internal structure and global mineral composition.

Carol Raymond, Dawn's principal investigator, said: "The first views of Ceres obtained by Dawn beckoned us with a single, blinding bright spot".

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Between 2011 and 2012 the space probe orbited the giant asteroid Vesta in the Asteroid Belt. "Unraveling the nature and history of this fascinating dwarf planet during the course of Dawn's extended stay at Ceres has been thrilling, and it is especially fitting that Dawn's last act will provide rich new data sets to test those theories".

Dawn's scientific sunset is expected to occur later this year when its thruster fuel runs out, but even then, the probe will continue to circle Ceres in a stable orbit - to preserve the dwarf planet's surface in pristine condition for any life-detection probes that may follow.

See more images from Dawn's low orbits here.

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