The Dawn mission was launched on 27 September 2007. The objective of the mission is the most thorough investigation of the asteroids Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. With Dawn, researchers expect to find out what happened during the first few millions of years after the planets were formed.
Varied impact craters, valleys, canyons and mountains among the highest in the Solar System are revealed on the first images of the asteroid Vesta.
This week, scientists at the European Planetary Science Conference (EPSC) in Nantes, France are busy with the mysterious crater structures and fascinating views of the multifaceted dwarf planet Ceres. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is involved in the NASA Dawn mission and, among other things, is responsible for the mapping and naming of regions and striking surface features, in collaboration with the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
The north face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps is legendary; mountaineers consider the steep walls of the 1800-metre drop to be a difficult and challenging climb. But 326 million kilometres from Earth, the sheer cliffs of the Eiger find their match on the dwarf planet Ceres, where at some points, the wall of the Occator crater towers precipitously at a height of almost 2000 metres.
The lower the Dawn space probe flies over the dwarf planet Ceres with its on-board camera, the more puzzling – and exciting – the celestial body appears. “Some of the things we are seeing have never been seen anywhere else in the Solar System,” says Ralf Jaumann from the German Aerospace Center (DLR). “Except for on Earth.” Dawn is now looking down onto the surface of Ceres from an altitude of just 1470 kilometres. The first images acquired from its High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) show a ‘pyramid’ with unusual landslides, unstable crater walls and chains of mountains. “We can only speculate about these things at the moment.” Where the bright stripes along the pyramid-shaped mountain come from and whether the surface of the dwarf planet is comprised of different materials are questions that the planetary researchers are still trying to answer.