The prospect of humans traveling to the farthest reaches of our solar system is still, for now, kind of a problem. We’re delicate and fragile, and we have to carry a significant chunk of functioning ecosphere with us to survive in space. Sending probes out in our stead, to be our eyes and ears, solves two problems: first, they can withstand the rigors of space in ways we cannot hope to ourselves, and second, we don’t have to worry about bringing them back to Earth when they’re done. As our technology advances, the capabilities of these probes increase, to the point where we can send a probe to someplace like the dwarf planet Ceres, 2.77 times farther from our sun than Earth is.
In this video, the telemetry data retrieved by the Dawn probe that arrived in orbit around Ceres in March of 2015 has been compiled by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory into images and height maps and made into this stunning aerial survey of that distant icy world. The movie shows Ceres in enhanced color, with the height maps exaggerated somewhat so that the ridges and details can be clearly seen. The curious bright spots in the middle of Occatur Crater can be clearly seen, as well as Ahuna Mons, the curious six mile high mountain that seems split into three equal parts by a surface fissure.
The whole thing is set to some pretty majestic music, and you can see the impacts and scarring of a world created by cataclysm and torn by geological activity. The enhanced color shows us the subtle differences in the makeup of the surface. The ground is rich with phyllosilicates, a mineral found in clay. The blue areas seem to be made of fresh material from Ceres’ interior, and the bright spots like the ones in Occatur Crater that attracted everyone’s attention when the Dawn probe made its initial approach seem to be some sort of metal salt.
We are fortunate that the Dawn probe was able to carry visual and other sensors as sophisticated as this so far from home to be our eyes and ears, and it will probably be the last visit human-made robots make to this remote world in our lifetimes. Of course, we may become sufficiently inspired to solve the problems of long distance human space flight and go see for ourselves.