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CERES Revealed…

As I was growing up – a space-mad kid, hiding away in my schools’ libraries, devouring every astronomy book on their shelves when I should have been outside kicking a ball around with the others – Ceres was just an asteroid, a big chunk of rock orbiting the Sun, way, waay out there. In those days – yes, I know, cue the Hovis music! – a generation before the birth of the Internet, when the cutting edge of computer technology was a Sinclair ZX81 with a wobbly 1K RAM pack, when Wagon Wheels really were the size of a wagon’s wheel and school breaks were spent reading the latest issue of 2000AD while chewing on a Uranium-hard Texan Bar or crunching a delicious packet of chutney-flavoured Space Invader crisps, we didn’t know much about asteroids, just that there were lots of them “out there”, most contained in a belt or band between Mars and Jupiter.  illustrations of the asteroid belt were very basic and looked like this…

ast_belt

And although we hadn’t yet seen an asteroid close up – that would not happen for many years – we kind of knew what they would look like, and they were a regular sight in science fiction films. Unfortunately most of those films wrongly gave the impression that the asteroid belt was so crowded with asteroids that flying through it would mean ducking, dodging and weaving through a chaotic mass of tumbling rocks…

Hoth_asteroid_field_btm

…and a hugely popular video game of the time – which I spent many happy hours playing at Pontins holiday camps during rain-soaked holidays – continued to show that…

tumblr_nj3q79Z4Gc1rl9q8oo2_400

Now, of course, we know exactly what asteroids look like because we’ve sent space probes to or past many of them. And we know, too, that the asteroid belt, while densely populated, would pose no problems for a Jupiter-bound spaceship because the asteroids in it are so very far apart that if you were passing one even its very nearest neighbour would be so far away it would look just like a star in the sky. But still asteroids fascinate us and call out to us, Siren-like, from the cold, dark depths if the solar system.

When I was growing up, Ceres was, like Vesta, just a name in a book or a magazine – a large asteroid “out there”. I didn’t even see for the first time it until half a dozen years ago, by which time it had been reclassified as a “dwarf planet”. When I finally saw it through binoculars it wasn’t striking, just a “star” surrounded by many others, and I didn’t (knowingly) take my first photo of it until early last year, when Ceres and Vesta were, by a happy coincidence, both in the same part of the sky and I finally had a camera good enough to capture them…

March 11 2014

My, how things have changed…

As you read this, having already imaged and studied and mapped Vesta, NASA’s DAWN probe is taking photos of Ceres, turning yet another of those anonymous points of light in the sky into a real world. The latest images released by NASA reveal Ceres to be a cratered, blasted world, spattered with mysterious “bright spots” and raked by cracks, valleys and trenches, like some of the moons orbiting the worlds in the outer solar system. Media attention is being focussed on these two particular bright spots which lie inside a huge crater,…

PIA19185_resample

Speculation about their nature is rife – are they patches of bright ice beneath the surface, exposed by meteorite impacts? Are they plumes of gas coming out of vents in the crust? Are they ice volcanoes? No-one knows yet, but reading on Twitter and Facebook it seems many people are now leaning towards the icy deposits explanation. We’ll know more in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime, many thanks go to one of my favourite space artists, Ron Miller, for giving me permission to use this painting he has done showing what the “Bright spots” might look like up close…

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Yesterday NASA released a new animation showing Ceres rotating, and it’s a beauty.

pia19547-1041b

(If the animation doesn’t play in your browser automatically, just click on the image, that should do it…)

You can see a higher resolution version of the animation here…

http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA19547

Watching that animation you really get a sense of a world rotating before your eyes. But it goes very quickly, and there’s not much contrast, making surface details quite hard to see. So, ever-inquisitive, I took the animation apart and enhanced some of the individual frames to bring out features on the surface, and the results are fascinating…

1

Look at that… two very distinct bright areas on the surface of Ceres which look very much like fresh craters to me. A closer look…

1b

Another view…

2

Ah, the original “bright spots”… let’s take a closer look…

b spots

3

…and as you can see there are more than just a pair of bright features in there, there’s a veritable bright spot party going on inside that crater! Can’t wait to see them in real detail later in the mission.

Another view of Ceres, which I’ve really stretched to bring out detail and features. Note: it should be remembered that enhancing like this – sharpening, changing levels etc – can often introduce imaging artefacts, i.e things which aren’t really there, so please bear in mind that this is just done to bring out general detail, but mainly to produce aesthetically-pleasing and intriguing images, ok?

2b

Ahhhh, now you can see, quite clearly, that the surface of Ceres is raked and scratched and etched with valley- and trench-like features. That’s extremely interesting! Again, we look forward to high resolution views of those!

And then there’s this…

5

…which shows a whole trail of “bright spot” across the surface…

5b

5e

Something else caught my eye too – a feature which can be seen on the limb of Ceres on some images, which looks very much like a mountain or, some are suggesting, a volcano..?

2c

…and finally, I made this image of Ceres purely to look pretty so please, no-one take it too seriously, ok?

5c

Yes, we’ve come a long way since I Han Solo flew the Millennium Falcon through that asteroid belt and almost got eaten by a snapping space slug…

Hothslug

Over the coming days and weeks we’ll see Ceres in more and more detail. Who knows what amazing discoveries lie ahead?

I can’t wait to find out!

4 Responses

  1. […] como siempre el blog Cumbrian Sky ha desmenuzado las imágenes obtenidas por la sond Dawn, entre las muchas imágenes que […]

  2. […] von JPL, MPS und DLR, weitere Standbilder hier, hier und hier und Artikel hier, hier, hier, hier, hier und hier. Dawn spiraliert inzwischen wieder näher an Ceres heran und wird ab dem X. Juni die […]

  3. Just another GREAT post, Stuart
    THANK YOU for your outstanding effort.

    (crawl your little ‘tiger’ at her neck and tell her it’s from me)

    Regards

  4. why do you have better photos than NASA, of Ceres?

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