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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Tons of fun with the latest Ceres image releases from Dawn

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

22-05-2015 16:59 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, asteroids, Dawn, asteroid 1 Ceres

Fantastic new images of Ceres continue to spill out of the Dawn mission, and armchair scientists all over the world are zooming into them, exploring them, and trying to solve the puzzles that they contain. It's tremendous fun to have the opportunity to see a new world for the first time, discover strange features, and try to explain them. I do see a lot of amateur scientists making some mistakes when trying to interpret the images, and thought I would spend a blog post explaining them, and then highlight some of the cool things that members of the public are doing with the photos.

Let's begin by looking at this absolutely fantastic animation of a spinning Ceres, which contains 51 unique images and covers slightly more than one rotation.

Dawn's Ceres Rotation Characterization 3 (uncorrected)


Dawn's Ceres Rotation Characterization 3 (uncorrected)
This animation consists of 51 frames shot by Dawn during its Rotation Characterization 3 on May 4, 2015. Dark specks that jump around in the image are artifacts.

The first thing most people notice is that the mysterious white spots are breaking up into more white spots than we saw previously, but they're no less mysterious than before. I have read members of the science team suggest either exposed ice or salts as a possibility. The second thing people notice is mysterious black dots jumping around the image. I've had people ask me if these were mini-moons of Ceres, or perhaps caves on Ceres, and I'd not be surprised if there were some denizens of the Internet interpreting them to be ships of the Air Force of the Cerean Ice Weasels.

But if you look closely, you'll see that a lot of the black spots have the same shape from image to image, yet they're in different places on Ceres. Moreover, when there's more than one black dot in an image, they tend to be in the same position with respect to each other. That's no moon; that's schmutz in the camera. One of my followers on Twitter made a video to demonstrate the persistent relative positions of the three most obvious schmutz bits, which is helpful, but I wanted to clean them off the images entirely. So I took the frames from the animation and aligned them on the schmutz bits, then stacked them, averaging together the values of all the pixels at each spot. This process revealed 8 or 9 schmutz spots that fleck all of the Dawn images, circled in yellow on the image below.

Schmutz in Dawn's framing camera

NASA / JPL / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Emily Lakdawalla

Schmutz in Dawn's framing camera
Stacking all the images from the May 4, 2015 Rotation Characterization 3 animation reveals 9 spots that are anomalously dark in all images in which they fall atop Ceres. Because their edges are crisp they likely represent something on the detector rather than in the optics (where they'd be out of focus).

In Photoshop, I took my schmutz map into the animation and used it to identify where all of the offending spots were on each of the 51 frames, and erased them using either the healing brush or the clone stamp. In doing so, I've crossed the line from "analysis" to "art". These images are no longer suitable for science, which is why science teams generally do not do this kind of blemish removal on their images before posting them. There is no worse thing for a scientist to do than to manufacture data! But now the rest of us can enjoy the animation without the distractions of dark spots, and people won't email me about caves and moons on Ceres. Or ice weasels. I have also slowed down the animation a little, and I removed a few of the frames so that the first and last frame match more closely.

Ceres' full rotation, Dawn Rotation Characterization 3, May 4, 2015

NASA / JPL / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Emily Lakdawalla

Ceres' full rotation, Dawn Rotation Characterization 3, May 4, 2015
This animation consists of 44 photos of Ceres taken over one complete Ceres day on May 4, 2015. Dawn was in a polar orbit, moving from north to south, so the ends of the animation don't quite match up. Dust specks have been cleaned from the images by painting over affected pixels. The original animation (which had 51 distinct frames, covering slightly more than one rotation) is available here.

Here's an alternate version of the corrected images. It is so awesome that they have shared so many images with us. You can check out interesting features and see how they appear to change as Ceres' rotation carries them in and out of view.

51 views of Ceres, Dawn Rotation Characterization 3, May 4, 2015

NASA / JPL / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Emily Lakdawalla

51 views of Ceres, Dawn Rotation Characterization 3, May 4, 2015
Dawn took these images of Ceres over slightly more than one complete Ceres day on May 4, 2015. Dust specks have been cleaned from the images by painting over affected pixels. The original animation is available here.

Dawn is now spiraling downward further, and has captured several images for optical navigation in which Ceres is so large that it more than fills the field of view. Here is the best photo yet of those mysterious bright spots -- and a new opportunity for memebrs of the public to misinterpret images. I'll show you the photo, then explain.

Dawn view of Ceres on May 16, 2015


Dawn view of Ceres on May 16, 2015
Dawn captured this photo of Ceres from a distance of 7200 kilometers as it was spiraling down from its former Rotation Characterization 3 altitude to Survey Orbit.

I have seen many people crop out the crater with the white spots, enlarge it several times, and stretch its contrast to try to see more detail (see, for instance, here and here and here). Unfortunately, there is no more detail to be seen. The white spots are saturated -- as white as white can be -- and all the enhancement that everyone is doing to them is only bringing out JPEG compression artifacts. To explain: JPEG is an image format that compresses image data by converting lists of pixel values into much shorter lists of equations and coefficients (if you ever studied Fourier transforms in math or physics, it's a similar process). It's highly effective at shrinking photo file sizes, but when your computer turns the lists of equations back into a photo, it's not quite the same as the photo you started with; it's just an approximation. This is called lossy compression. The smaller the file size you compress the image to, the more of an approximation it is, and the more of the original information is lost. In highly compressed images, you can see artifacts of the JPEG compression scheme as a checkerboardy texture and as bright-dark-bright-dark pixel patterns wherever there was a sharp boundary in the original image.

The optical navigation photo that I included above was compressed so much before release that those dark schmutz spots I was talking about earlier in this post have been almost completely erased by compression artifacts. (I inquired with the mission whether the compression was done on the spacecraft or after arrival on Earth, and I was told it was done on Earth, so we have better versions of these images to look forward to once the science team formally releases the data.) In a way, the schmutz spots are actually useful here because they demonstrate just how much detail was lost with the JPEG compression. In the comparison below, the top row of images is from my schmutz map; the bottom row is from the Op Nav photo. In the bottom row you can see the 8-by-8-pixel checkerboard that is the telltale sign of JPEG compression, and one of the schmutz spots has almost completely disappeared.

Dawn schmutz comparison before and after JPEG compression

The reason I'm going on and on about the JPEG compression is to make the point that it is a waste of time to try to enlarge the image of the white spots to reveal more detail. The only fine details available in this image are mostly not real. They have everything to do with compression artifacts and nearly nothing to do with geology. In fact, I'd recommend shrinking the optical navigation image before trying to study it, or maybe blurring it, as a method of deemphasizing the spurious features introduced by the file compression. The animation at the top of this post doesn't have the same problem; it was not posted as a JPEG but rather as a GIF. For black-and-white photos, it's possible for GIF to be a lossless compression scheme, and the quality of those images is much higher.

I could write a couple thousand words on interpretation of these photos, but I won't; there is enough detail in these photos and I have enough scientific training that for me to do too much writing about them would seem to be stepping on the toes of the science team. I will wait until they issue press releases, publish in Science, or present at a science meeting, and then I will critique their interpretations! What I will do is share some of the cool analysis that other denizens of the Internet have been doing with the pictures.

First up is this lovely updated global map of Ceres, which uses all of the most recent pictures, including and up to the publicly released ones from op Nav 8. (It came from this discussion on, where you may find a more up-to-date version of the map if you are reading this post much after I wrote it.)

Global map of Ceres as of May 16, 2015

NASA / JPL / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Steve Albers

Global map of Ceres as of May 16, 2015

Grab your red-blue glasses to enjoy this really cool 3D view of a rotating Ceres, courtesy of Nathan Frey ("walfy") at

Probably the coolest thing I've seen is this animation, by user ZLD at, of an isolated streaky peak in Ceres' southern hemisphere. The same user also made an animation of the white spots.

One item that I noticed that I can't help mentioning is: look at the center of this image and notice what a strikingly perfectly hexagon-shaped crater lies there.

I'll close with a lovely crescent view of Ceres, one of three that the mission released last week. I love crescent views of worlds of the solar system, because the thinner the crescent, the more alike they all look. The craters are a little deeper and central-peakier than you'd see on Dione or Tethys, and the globe a bit lumpier than you'd see on Mercury or the Moon. But they all kind of look alike from this angle.

Crescent Ceres, April 30, 2015


Crescent Ceres, April 30, 2015
Dawn captured this crescent view of Ceres while in its first polar mapping orbit.
See other posts from May 2015


Or read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, asteroids, Dawn, asteroid 1 Ceres


Gregk: 05/22/2015 09:29 CDT

About that schmutz on the camera, any theories on what it is? Was it there when Dawn was at Vesta or did it somehow accumulate during the travel period?

PatrickN: 05/23/2015 08:12 CDT

"...ships of the Air Force of the Cerean Ice Weasels." Man, the Internet is mish-mash of complete crazies and severely uninformed people. We all know that Air Force was destroyed during the Second Asteroid War, and that these are the Diamond Dens built by conquering *gas* weasels from Enceladus. Let's do some research before posting, people!

BrianD: 05/23/2015 09:21 CDT

Is Dawn only sending JPEGs? It would make sense to send less data across space, but is there no facility to send raw image data to satisfy scientists (ha ha)?

QubitsToy: 05/23/2015 10:45 CDT

Gregk, yes the same effect has been in some of the Vesta photos. I don't have the link.

joel: 05/23/2015 11:42 CDT

Thank you Emily for this fantastic work. While everybody's attention is stuck on the white spots complex, I'm surprised that no one has spoken about this astonishing "lonely mountain" that appears as a pimple. on your 51 images series it appears on #4 and 5 of first row on the western limb (9 o'clock then 8) and reaches the eastern limb on images #4 to 6 of third row. A set of faults/lines/valleys seem to connect it overs hundreds of km to the white spot complex. This "Erebor" of Ceres looks very peaky and has a bright area south of its summit. Weird.

joel: 05/23/2015 11:46 CDT

This lonely mountain seems to be 4000 to 5000m-high.

Bert: 05/23/2015 09:10 CDT

Hi Emily... You wrote: "I could write a couple thousand words on interpretation of these photos, but... " You should! I for one would like to read intelligent, informed comments about these first images and not wait weeks or months for the science team to publish. Please... just a little... ;)

joel: 05/24/2015 05:50 CDT

I agree with Bert: please Emily dare! The white spot at center of 7th image of first row in your 51 images series looks smaller and brightier: lets hope It's a twin of spot 5 complex! Is it spot 1 by the way?

simon: 05/24/2015 10:35 CDT

great article, fun read.

joel: 05/24/2015 11:12 CDT

About 50 deg east of great spot 5 complex lies a "fried-egg shaped" "crater-in-a-crater". South of center of 8th image of 2nd row. Northwest of its internal crater lies a strange smal white dot.

David: 05/24/2015 03:09 CDT

Do we have any better constraints on the albedo of the white spots? I recall them being given a reflectivity of 40% or better, but I wonder if that has gone up as we get a better notion of their actual size.

gareth: 05/25/2015 08:01 CDT

Emily, has anyone played with the idea that the spots could be of limestone origin rather than ice or salts. If water is under the crust and there is primitive lifeforms then limestone could possibly form. What has made it burst out so profusely in just one crater rather than many is intriguing but it might explain why under infrared the spots are the same temperature as the rocky ground around them.

BergH: 05/27/2015 04:37 CDT

Hello Emily ! Thanks for the good work. Just curiosity: Is there a reason to use the german word schmutz instead of i.e. stain, or dirt? I started laughing when I read Schmut-Map. Sicerely Holger B.

Emily Lakdawalla: 05/27/2015 10:44 CDT

David: I've seen pro astronomers guesstimating that the albedo of the bright spots is >50%, so it really has to be ice or some kind of evaporitic material. BergH: There are a lot of Yiddish loan-words in American English vernacular -- schmutz, scmhalz, mensch, and chutzpah, to name a few!

SirWilhelm: 05/28/2015 09:46 CDT

Electric Universe theory explains most of the features on Ceres. The white spots are the points where the electric magnetic field around Ceres connects with the electric field from the Sun, and electric sputtering is taking place, like in electric welding. Welders have to wear masks with sunglasses like glass in them, to protect their eyes from the light generated by electric welding. The hexagonal crater was created by cosmic scale lightning. Hexagonal shapes are seen at the poles of Saturn, Jupiter, and the other gas giants, because that is where their fields interact with the Sun's field. If you really want to know what's going on in our Solar System, and the Universe, you need to learn about the Electric Universe. Look it up.

SirWilhelm: 05/28/2015 10:56 CDT

joel: 05/30/2015 03:38 CDT

The latest image from OpNav on nasa site comes as a major disappointment, as it makes it clear, unfortunately, that the set of parallel lines is of meteoritic origin and not tectonic. Sigh. Lets hope that at least the long line in between the "lonely mountain" and the spot 5 complex is tectonic but given its orientation the hope is dim. I cant wait to have images from the southern hemisphere, which looked more promising from tectonics perspective. Whats your opinion Emily? Are you aware of other bodies presenting such parallele "grazing impact lines"? (Looked new to me).

QubitsToy: 06/04/2015 09:58 CDT

Emily thanks for the link to the animation I assembled in Photoshop. I came back to it for a look and am wondering, if the schmulz is on the CCD, why does it change positions? Dawn is mostly stationary, the field of view is encompassing the entire dwarf planet. What makes it move?

QubitsToy: 06/11/2015 09:05 CDT

I truly think this is what we are looking at. A Frozen Lake.

MihailVlasov: 07/27/2015 01:35 CDT

Скажите пожалуйста. Когда уже будут фото Цереры в естественном цвете? Интересно посмотреть на неё вблизи в таком качестве. ................................ Tell me please. When there will be a photo of Ceres in a natural color? It is interesting to look at it close to as such.

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