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Dwarf planet Ceres reveals surface secrets in NASA color map

Dawn's first color map of Ceres shows the dwarf planet's mottled surface hints at a vibrant and active past.

Ceres color map
This shows a portion of the Ceres color map. Picasa

NASA's Dawn spacecraft already had an impressive resume when it reached orbit around dwarf planet Ceres in early March. Launched in 2007, Dawn is strolling through space, looking deep into the early history of our solar system by studying the asteroid Vesta along with Ceres, its larger sibling. Both are located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn's earliest views of Ceres were in black and white, showing us a rocky, pockmarked body. Some unusual bright spots showed in these images, giving scientists plenty to ponder as Dawn moved closer to its goal. Researchers shared Dawn's first color map of Ceres, a fascinating enhanced-color image designed to highlight a variety of surface features.

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

Scientists believe Ceres is composed of 25 percent water ice by mass. Its most noticeable features are the many craters across the surface. The color map is one tool researchers are using to sleuth out Ceres' history and how impact craters affect the makeup of the surface. The investigation is still in the early stages.

Ceres' bright spots still remain shrouded in mystery, but answers may soon be forthcoming as Dawn enters a new phase in its study of the dwarf planet starting on April 23. It will be within just 8,400 miles of the surface at that time. This will provide scientists with a set of higher-resolution images to work with.

"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," said Russell.

Ceres map
There's much more to Ceres than just craters. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA