Tag Archives: Occator Crater

Fractures in the floor of Occator Crater

Fractures in floor of Occator Crater

Cool image time! The Dawn science team has released an image of Ceres, cropped to post here in the right, that shows a spiderweb of fractures radiating out from a single point in the floor of Occator Crater.

These fractures have been interpreted as evidence that material came up from below and formed a dome shape, as if a piston was pushing Occator’s floor from beneath the surface. This may be due to the upwelling of material coming from Ceres’ deep interior. An alternative hypothesis is that the deformation is due to volume changes inside a reservoir of icy magma in the shallow subsurface that is in the process of freezing, similar to the change in volume that a bottle of water experiences when put in a freezer.

In the image sunlight is coming from the right. This fractured area can be seen in this earlier simulated oblique image of Occator Crater, in the southwest corner of the crater floor, well away from the crater’s more well known bright areas.

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A variety of geological activity caused bright areas on Ceres

Occator Crater

Based on the data obtained of Ceres from Dawn scientists have concluded that a variety of geological activities caused the bright areas on the planet, and that some of those activities could still be happening today.

Since Dawn arrived in orbit at Ceres in March 2015, scientists have located more than 300 bright areas on Ceres. A new study in the journal Icarus, led by Nathan Stein, a doctoral researcher at Caltech in Pasadena, California, divides Ceres’ features into four categories.

The first group of bright spots contains the most reflective material on Ceres, which is found on crater floors. The most iconic examples are in Occator Crater [shown in the image above, reduced and cropped to post here], which hosts two prominent bright areas. Cerealia Facula, in the center of the crater, consists of bright material covering a 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) pit, within which sits a small dome. East of the center is a collection of slightly less reflective and more diffuse features called Vinalia Faculae. All the bright material in Occator Crater is made of salt-rich material, which was likely once mixed in water. Although Cerealia Facula is the brightest area on all of Ceres, it would resemble dirty snow to the human eye.

More commonly, in the second category, bright material is found on the rims of craters, streaking down toward the floors. Impacting bodies likely exposed bright material that was already in the subsurface or had formed in a previous impact event.

Separately, in the third category, bright material can be found in the material ejected when craters were formed.

The mountain Ahuna Mons gets its own fourth category — the one instance on Ceres where bright material is unaffiliated with any impact crater. This likely cryovolcano, a volcano formed bythe gradual accumulation of thick, slowly flowing icy materials, has prominent bright streaks on its flanks.

The report is somewhat vague about why they think that there might be some geological activity even today.

The image above, released as part of this press release, gives us a simulated oblique look at Occator Crater and its bright areas. It is definitely worth it to look at the full resolution image.

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Scientists estimate age of bright spots in Occator Crater on Ceres

Using crater counts and a careful analysis of features in Occator Crater on Ceres, scientists have estimated that the last major eruption occurred about 4 million years ago.

Nathues and his team interpret the central pit with its rocky, jagged ridge as a remnant of a former central mountain. It formed as a result of the impact that created Occator Crater some 34 million years ago and collapsed later. The dome of bright material is much younger: only approximately four million years. The key to determining these ages was the accurate counting and measuring of smaller craters torn by later impacts. This method’s basic assumption is that surfaces showing many craters are older than those that are less strongly “perforated”. Since even very small craters are visible in highly resolved images, the new study contains the most accurate dating so far.

“The age and appearance of the material surrounding the bright dome indicate that Cerealia Facula was formed by a recurring, eruptive process, which also hurled material into more outward regions of the central pit”, says Nathues. “A single eruptive event is rather unlikely,” he adds. A look into the Jupiter system supports this theory. The moons Callisto and Ganymede show similar domes. Researchers interpret them as volcanic deposits and thus as signs of cryovolcanism.

The volcano itself has slumped away, leaving behind the bright depression. Whether any cryovolcanism is still occurring underground remains unknown.

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Flying over Occator Crater on Ceres

Cool movie time! Using data from Dawn the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has produced a short animation that gives a 3D flyover of Occator Crater on Ceres.

The animated flyover includes topographic and enhanced-color views of the crater, highlighting the central dome feature. The central area has been named Cerealia Facula. Occator’s secondary group of bright spots is called Vinalia Faculae.

The movie is definitely worth watching, especially the sections that show in close-up the bright areas near the crater’s center.

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Ceres’s brightest spot

Brightest Spot in Occator Crater on Ceres

Cool image time: While I was in Washington the Dawn science team released a very nice close-up image of the bright spots inside Occator Crater on Ceres. On the right is a cropped version which focuses solely on the central brightest spot. The spot appears to overlie a central dome with a depression in the middle. Other data says the spot is the low area in the crater, and the linear cracks that radiate away as well as in concentric rings around the spot suggest that this central area has subsided, causing those cracks.

Make sure you look at the full image, as it includes the other smaller spots that are also inside Occator.

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New close-up of Occator Crater’s spots

Occator Crater central spot

The Dawn science team have released new images taken from the spacecraft’s low orbit observations, including a close-up of the central white spot at Occator Crater, the brightest spot on Ceres.

The image on the right is a cropped though full resolution version of the full image. I have reduced it only slightly. As they note,

Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres, the dwarf planet that Dawn has explored since early 2015. The latest images, taken from 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface of Ceres, reveal a dome in a smooth-walled pit in the bright center of the crater. Numerous linear features and fractures crisscross the top and flanks of this dome. Prominent fractures also surround the dome and run through smaller, bright regions found within the crater.

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Changes in Ceres’s white spots

The uncertainty of science: Ground-based observations of Ceres now suggest that the white spots imaged by Dawn undergo subtle unexpected variations

As Ceres rotates every 9 hours, HARPS is so sensitive that it can detect the very slight Doppler shift in spectrum frequency as the bright spots rotate toward and away Earth, but during observations for 2 nights in July and August 2015, more changes not related to Ceres’ spin were detected. “The result was a surprise,” said co-author Antonino Lanza, also from the INAF–Catania Astrophysical Observatory. “We did find the expected changes to the spectrum from the rotation of Ceres, but with considerable other variations from night to night.”

And it appears that these changes are consistent with some kind of volatile (ice) being exposed to sunlight and venting vapor into space, causing an increase in reflectivity. It seems that when Occator experiences solar heating, plumes are produced and then evaporate, creating a complex spectroscopic signal that evolves during that hemisphere’s daytime. This finding appears to be consistent with earlier observations made by Dawn showing a mysterious haze over Occator.

The problem with this theory is that it assumes the white spots are comprised of water ice. However, data from Dawn has instead suggested that the white spots are not water but salt deposits.

It could be that the white spots are salt left behind when water vented from inside Ceres evaporates away, but so far the data from Dawn has not found any evidence of water at the spots. If it was venting there, Dawn should have seen it.

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Oblique view of Ceres’s bright spots

Occator Crater on Ceres

Cool image time! The image above is a newly released image of Occator Crater on Ceres, the location of the dwarf planet’s double bright spots, taken by Dawn in October.

I have cropped the image to focus on the crater and the bright spots. Unlike most previous images, this one is taken from an angle to bring out the topography, which also confirms what other data had shown, that the bright spots are not on top of any peaks. If anything, they appear to be located at low spots in the crater, as that previous data had suggested.

Though the spots are not really very bright, they are very bright relative to the dark surface of Ceres. This is why it is difficult to get a good image of them. Either you have to over-expose the spots to see the surface details around them, or under-expose the surface around them to see some detail in the spots. This image tries to find a middle ground.

Eventually they will move Dawn in very close to try to get higher resolution images of the spots alone. At that time we might finally be able to get a better understanding of what causes them.

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