NASA has released stunning new images taken by its Dawn spacecraft of Ceres, providing the closest pictures of the dwarf planet ever. And, the “Lonely Mountain” – NASA’s nickname for a four-mile-tall mountain on the planet’s surface – can be seen in unprecedented detail.
The photos were taken at an altitude of 915 miles above the planet, a distance at which Dawn will stay for two months until it has mapped the planet six times. This distance is significantly closer to the planet than the 3,200 altitude that Dawn first took pictures from. And in October, Dawn will get even closer to Ceres when it maps it from a mere 320 mile altitude. As The Economic Times pointed out, NASA scientists are improving their measurements of the dwarf planet’s gravity field to prepare for the upcoming orbit.
You can check out all of the photos, which were shot at a resolution of 450 feet per pixel, at NASA’s website.
In a statement, the Dawn mission director and chief engineer Marc Rayman said “Dawn is performing flawlessly in this new orbit as it conducts its ambitious exploration. The spacecraft’s view is now three times as sharp as in its previous mapping orbit, revealing exciting new details of this intriguing dwarf planet.”
As CNET pointed out, NASA scientists are using the photographs, along with an infrared and visible mapping spectrometer, to study the dwarf planet’s surface minerals.
MORE ON CERES
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Ceres has a diameter of about 598 miles and first became known to astronomers in 1801. The massive pyramid-shaped mountain (which as Phil Plait pointed out at Slate could also be called “Mt. Doom” or “Mount Seleya”) has been visualized by NASA in a tour of the mountain animated with CGI. Along with Ceres’ bright spots, the mountain has been a source of intrigue and fascination to many scientists.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DAWN
Dawn, which was first launched by NASA in 2007, arrived in Ceres orbit in March 2015. Before it started mapping Ceres, Dawn spent more than a year observing the proto-planet Vesta.