New View Of Ceres Conical Mountain A Puzzler

A tall mountain some 4 miles high dominates Ceres' southern hemisphere in this photo snapped by Dawn on August 19, 2015 from 915 miles altitude. The resolution of the image is 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
A tall mountain some 4 miles high dominates Ceres’ southern hemisphere in this photo snapped by Dawn on August 19, 2015 from 915 miles altitude. The resolution of the image is 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

What is going on with that mountain? New images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from its new, lower science orbit of just 915 miles (1,470 km) reveal fresh and puzzling details on the conical mountain that towers 4 miles (6 km) high over the dwarf planet Ceres. Its slopes show bright streaks, the top appears fractured, but what’s really odd is the lack of debris at the mountain’s base. Why does it appear to end so abruptly? And why is it the only tall peak on Ceres?

obtained from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above Ceres on June 6, 2015.
A might lonely mountain. This earlier view of the peak was snapped from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 km) above Ceres on June 6, 2015. It’s about as high as Mt. McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Maybe it’s just a matter of resolution. Things look smoother and less bumpy from farther away. Closer views presumably will show a rougher surface, but their “polished” appearance strikes one as peculiar to say the least. Take a look at the crater just below the mountain. It interior slopes also appear smooth, but that’s undoubtedly due to lack of sharpness at this altitude. It’s fascinating to see how rock has tumbled down the crater’s walls and mounded in its center. In both mountain and crater, what rolls downhill has been broken into smaller pieces below the camera’s resolution at its current altitude.

NASA's Dawn Spacecraft took this image of Gaue crater, the large crater on the bottom, on Ceres. Gaue is a Germanic goddess to whom offerings are made in harvesting rye. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
52-mile-wide Gaue crater, the large one on the bottom, has a sunken-in center. Dawn took this photo on August 18, 2015. Gaue is a Germanic goddess to whom offerings are made in harvesting rye. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Funny isn’t it, that every time we drop down for a closer look at Ceres, the sharper views gained don’t necessarily solve the mystery. Like those Russian nested wooden dolls, where you open one to find another one inside, each step closer to the dwarf planet forces a new question.

a mountain ridge, near lower left, that lies in the center of Urvara crater on Ceres. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
A mountain ridge, at lower left, lies in the center of Urvara crater on Ceres.  Slumping crater walls separated by large cracks are seen at right. Urvara is an Indian and Iranian deity of plants and fields. The crater’s diameter is 101 miles (163 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

While no new pictures of the enigmatic white spots have been published yet, other images snapped by Dawn from 915 miles up show a sunken crater and a mountain ridge poking up from the floor of a large crater. The spacecraft has also been busy mapping out Ceres’ mineral makeup, while engineers and scientists work to refine their measurements of Ceres’ gravity field. The gravity information will help mission planners design Dawn’s next and lowest orbit and how it will get there. In late October, the probe will begin spiraling to down to an altitude of 230 miles (375 km), as low as it will go.

Now that Dawn has settled into its new mapping orbit, expect clearer photos of the white spots very soon.

22 Responses

  1. caralex

    That mountain looks as if the crater below it was excavated, and the debris turned 90 degrees and dumped just above it! A really peculiar pair!

    1. astrobob

      They really do make a sight together, don’t they? Like the impact pushed up the mountain next door – but of course it doesn’t work that way.

  2. I name this mountain “Barnacle Mountain”!

    Maybe that’s it? Perhaps it’s not physically part of Ceres?

    Maybe it’s part of a dirty snowball which broke up and bounced along, then made that final crater before hopping to a stop.

    If you look at the wider, oblique view or the area you can see another white patch near two craters in a line with this final crater, and then the “mountain”.

    It can only be ice, really, can’t it? If ice came to Ceres it wouldn’t go anywhere. Could it be that all those white spots are related?

    Wild idea, I know 😀

    1. astrobob

      Hi Paul,
      Wild ideas for sure. I’d think though that anything that came from space and “bounced” on Ceres would be completely blown apart in the crater-making process.

      1. Hi Bob,

        of course you’re most likely correct but… if… by some chance… I’ve got first dibs on that there boulder theory.

        Hopefully the Dawn Team can come up with a more plausible explanation.

        1. astrobob

          The dibs is yours and I’ll champion your idea if it turns out to be true. It should be interesting to see what it really might be. Another reader, Richard Keen, thought it might be a giant pingo, a icy feature seen in arctic areas.

  3. Mike McCabe

    Hi Bob,

    In the first image showing the conical mountain with bright slopes, my eyes see the mountain as a concave feature and the surrounding features as being convex. However, if I download the image and invert the colors I see the features correctly. I’ve had this issue occur repeatedly with close up shots of the lunar landscape as well, and was wondering if anybody else has reported seeing this phenomenon in crater images. It doesn’t happen to me all the time, but often enough that I believe that there has to be an explanation for it.


  4. Troy

    It looks like a great sledding hill. You could slide all the way down into the crater. I’m not sure if the 2.8% gravity would make the descent agonizingly slow or not though.

  5. caralex

    Bob, can you do a blog on the ’embargo’ process that Nature magazine has placed on the publication of the photos of the spots. I’d never heard of this procedure until a few days ago.

    It seems we’re not going to see any photos of the spots until a paper submitted to Nature is peer reviewed. This may be ‘procedure’, but don’t you agree that this sort of delay just adds fuel to the conspiracy theorists who believe NASA is hiding something?

    In fact, it WAS a conspiracy theorist, Linda Moulton Howe, who started it all off by interviewing the principal investigator of the Dawn Mission, Christopher Russell, who told her of the embargo. Obviously she didn’t understand it, so the rumours started. Here’s her article:

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Carol, that makes for fascinating reading! How infuriating though about the magazine hold. Bad move on the part of the person who submitted the article before it could be reviewed OR published. Hopefully that won’t happen again. Unfortunately, this could be used by the NASA conspiracy-believers to spin up.

      1. caralex

        It already is! That’s the sad thing. Those of the conspiratorial mindset will run with this as incontrovertible evidence that NASA is hiding things.

        1. astrobob

          We can only comfort ourselves knowing this is nothing new. Think of the additional close up photos of the purported “Face on Mars”, there are still some who believe NASA’s lying. Or the moon landings, or … fill in the blank.

          1. caralex

            We must have posted at the same time, BC, as I didn’t see your post when I was writing mine. Lovely pic, isn’t it? Though, as you say, the conspiracy nuts will be puzzling over the fact that the spots don’t seem nearly as bright close up as they did millions of miles out!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Carol,
      Been trying to write it up all afternoon but swamped with work. Just working on now. Very happy to see the image released!

Comments are closed.