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New Images Show Ceres is a Colorful Alien World

Apr 13, 2015 04:14 PM EDT
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This map-projected view of Ceres was created from VIR images taken from NASA's Dawn spacecraft during its initial approach to the protoplanet.
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Normally when we see pictures from space, they are in black and white, causing many to think that any world that isn't a planet must have dusty and colorless landscapes in the otherwise brilliant heavens. Now, however, new images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft challenge that notion, showing us that the massive asteroid known as Ceres is far more colorful than initial black-and-white images suggest.

A stunning 600 miles in diameter, Ceres is a round little world, almost like an incredibly small planet as it floats alone in space. Astronomers have long concluded that Ceres and another massive body in the Asteroid Belt, known as Vesta, are likely terrestrial planets that were never given a chance to fully develop, as their growth was disrupted by the immense gravity of nearby gas giant Jupiter. Consequentially, they have remained far smaller than even the Earth's Moon. But, as they are free-floating and formed entirely of their own volition, they have been classified as dwarves, or "protoplanets."

That's the same classification that the demoted planet Pluto now falls under, and why experts so desperately wanted to see Ceres for themselves. They remain confident that the massive asteroid could serve as a snapshot of planet formation - its mysterious processes frozen in time. (Scroll to read on...)

Ceres has an estimated surface area of 2,850,000 km2. That's just under seven times the total surface area of California state.
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA) Ceres has an estimated surface area of 2,850,000 km2. That's just under seven times the total surface area of California state.

"This dwarf planet was not just an inert rock throughout its history," Chris Russell, principal investigator for NASA's Dawn mission, explained in a recent statement. "It was active, with processes that resulted in different materials in different regions. We are beginning to capture that diversity in our color images."

The Ceres spacecraft, carried by a unique ion propulsion system for tremendously long-distanced missions, made history last March after it finally slipped into orbit around Ceres following a journey of 3.1 billion miles. It had taken 7.5 years for the probe to get there, but it had in-fact taken a detour to image Vesta on the way.

And while images from Vesta revealed a dry and relatively uniform surface, experts had been far more excited about Ceres, which is believed to be about 25 percent ice by mass. (Scroll to read on...)

Mysterious bright spots on Ceres' surface as seen by the VIR from a distance.
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF) Mysterious bright spots on Ceres' surface as seen by the VIR from a distance.

And so far, it seems that Ceres will not disappoint. Initial in-orbit data collected by Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) have revealed a world highlighted in blues, yellows, and grays - as would be seen by the naked human eye. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

It should be noted that while Ceres could be particularly colorful, no alien world is purely gray. The Moon, for instance, is actually a beautiful combination of whites, blacks, browns, and rusty reds, as depicted here.

The Dawn pictures from Ceres have also shown fewer large craters than expected, with the protoplanet's two infamous bright spots still shrouded in mystery.

"The bright spots continue to fascinate the science team, but we will have to wait until we get closer and are able to resolve them before we can determine their source," Russell said.

The Dawn spacecraft will continue studying Ceres through June 2016, drawing closer to the dwarf planet's surface with each orbital sweep until it finally has to take action to break from Ceres' gravitational pull.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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