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Gerber Catena
This Dec. 10 image of Ceres shows the area around a crater chain called Gerber Catena,. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft was flying about 240 miles above Ceres when the picture was taken. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA).

Earlier this month we started seeing some of the closest views yet of Pluto, and now it’s time for close-ups from a closer dwarf planet: Ceres.

NASA’s Dawn orbiter has begun delivering pictures of the solar system’s biggest asteroid and smallest known dwarf planet as seen from its closest vantage point, just 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface. That’s roughly how high the International Space Station flies above Earth.

One of the more intriguing views released today shows the area around a crater chain called Gerber Catena. Get out your red-blue glasses, and you can easily spot a trough running through a 3-D view of the terrain.

3-D view of Ceres
Got 3-D glasses? Here’s a red-blue version of the Dawn imagery of Gerber Catena (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

Many of Ceres’ troughs and grooves are thought to have been formed by impacts, but some appear to be due to internal stresses that ruptured the mini-world’s crust.

“Why they are so prominent is not yet understood, but they are probably related to the complex crustal structure of Ceres,” Paul Schenk, a Dawn science team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, said in today’s image advisory from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

These pictures were taken to test Dawn’s backup framing camera. The spacecraft’s instruments are now getting a high-resolution look at all of Ceres’ mysteries – including the weird bright spots that have shown up so prominently at higher altitudes.

Ceres' south pole
This part of Ceres, near the south pole, has such long shadows because of the sun’s slanting perspective. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

This month, scientists reported that the spots are probably salt deposits, left behind by the sublimation of salty ice exposed by past impacts.

“As we take the highest-resolution data ever from Ceres, we will continue to examine our hypotheses and uncover even more surprises about this mysterious world,” said UCLA astronomer Chris Russell, the Dawn mission’s principal investigator.

Dawn’s primary science mission is due to last until at least next June. Even after the mission is over, NASA expects the car-sized spacecraft to remain in its current orbit indefinitely.

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