Join Donate

Marc RaymanMarch 31, 2017

Dawn Journal: Bonus Plans

Dear Leonardo dawn Vinci, Micheldawngelo and Other Artistic Readers,

Now in its third year of orbiting a distant dwarf planet, a spacecraft from Earth is as active as ever. Like a master artist, Dawn is working hard to add fine details to its stunning portrait of Ceres.

In this phase of its extended mission, the spacecraft’s top priority is to record space radiation (known as cosmic rays) in order to refine its earlier measurements of the atomic species down to about a yard (meter) underground. The data Dawn has been collecting are excellent.

Canyons on Ceres

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Canyons on Ceres
Dawn saw this rugged terrain on August 15, 2016, from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). This is the southeastern end of a network of canyons in Yalode Crater called Nar Sulcus. (Nar is from a modern pomegranate feast in part of Azerbaijan. A sulcus is a set of parallel furrows or ridges.) We saw the rest of these canyons as they extend far to the northwest here. Geological structures like this have been found on some icy moons of the outer planets. The tremendous impact that formed Yalode heated the mixture of ice, rock and salt, which is a common combination on Ceres, perhaps causing a large volume to melt. When it subsequently refroze, it would have expanded (just as water does when it turns to ice in your freezer), and that may have created stresses that fractured the ground, forming Nar Sulcus. You can locate this scene in the eastern part of Yalode on this map near 41°S, 281°E. With a diameter of 162 miles (260 kilometers), Yalode is the second largest crater on Ceres. We have presented other photos of the crater, most recently in JanuaryFull image and caption.

As we explained in January, the ambitious mission has added a complex bonus to its plans. The team is piloting the ship through an intricate set of space maneuvers to dramatically shift its orbit around Ceres. They are now about halfway through, and it has been smooth sailing. Dawn is on course and on schedule. (If you happen to be one of the few readers for whom it isn’t second nature to plan how to change a spacecraft’s orbit around a dwarf planet by 90 degrees and then fly it under control of ion engine, last month’s Dawn Journal presents a few of the details that may not be obvious. And you can follow the adventurer’s orbital progress with the regular mission status updates.)

If all goes well, on April 29 the new orbit will take Dawn exactly between the sun and the famous bright region at the center of Occator Crater. Named Cerealia Facula, the area is composed largely of salts. (Based on infrared spectra, the strongest candidate for the primary constituent is sodium carbonate). The probe will be at an altitude of about 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers), or more than 50 times higher than it was in 2016 when it captured its sharpest photos of Occator (as well as the rest of Ceres’ 1.1 million square miles, or 2.8 million square kilometers). But the objective of reaching a position at which the sun and Ceres are in opposite directions, a special alignment known as opposition, is not to take pictures that display more details to our eyes. In fact, however, the pictures will contain intriguing new details that are not readily discerned by visual inspection. Dawn will take pictures as it gets closer and closer to opposition, covering a range of angles. In each image, scientists will scrutinize the handful of pixels on Cerealia Facula to track how the brightness changes as Dawn’s vantage point changes.

Occator Crater from afar

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Occator Crater from afar
Dawn took this photo of Occator Crater on Oct. 18, 2016, at an altitude of 920 miles (1,480 kilometers) in extended mission orbit 2. We have seen other views of Occator, from farther, from closer, with exposures optimized for the brightest areas, in color, with the crater on the limb of Ceres and more, but you can never have too many pictures of such a captivating scene. The central bright region is Cerealia Facula, and the collection of others is Vinalia Faculae. (A bright region on a planet is a facula. Here is more on these names.) These are the brightest areas on Ceres. One scenario for how they formed is that underground briny water made its way to the surface through fractures. When the water was on the ground, exposed to the cold vacuum of space, it froze and sublimated (that is, it transformed from a solid to a gas). The dissolved salt was left behind, with sodium carbonate being the likely principal constituent, and that reflective material is what we see here. We will see below that opposition surge measurements may provide evidence to support or modify this scenario. (A recent estimate is that Cerealia Facula may be some tens of millions of years younger than the crater itself. We discussed last year how ages are determined.) Since we can’t have too many views of this exotic scenery, another is below (and it shows the fractures that may have served as conduits for the water). Occator is on this map at 20°N, 239°E. Full image and caption.

We described the opposition surge, in which the reflected sunlight at opposition may be significantly brighter than it is in any other geometrical arrangement. A few degrees or even a fraction of a degree can make a large difference. But why is that? What is the underlying reason for the opposition surge? What can we learn by measuring it? And is the best cake better than the best candy?

Those are all interesting and important questions. We will address some of them here and leave the rest for your own thorough investigation.

There are at least three separate physical effects that may contribute to the opposition surge. One of them is known as shadow hiding. When the sun shines on the ground, tiny irregularities in the surface, even at the microscopic level, will cast shadows. When you look at the ground, those shadows collectively detract from its overall brightness, even if each individual shadow is too small for you to see. The total amount of light reflected off the ground and into your eyes (or your camera) is less than it would be if every point, no matter how small, were well lit. However, if you look along the same direction as the incoming light, then all the shadows will be hidden. They will all be on the opposite side of those tiny irregularities, out of reach of both the incident light and your sight. In that case, anything you can see will be illuminated, and the scene will be brighter. The figure below is intended to illustrate this phenomenon of shadow hiding (and excluding the caption, the picture is probably worth almost 480 words).

Illustration of shadow hiding

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Illustration of shadow hiding
At the bottom is the ground on Ceres with greatly exaggerated crystals of salt pointing in random directions. (Shadow hiding occurs even with very small grains.) The white dashed lines show light from the sun, and each ray traces the light to the tip of a crystal and then to the point beyond. The solid black lines along the ground and the crystals are in shadow. That is, the incoming light cannot reach those places. Therefore, when Dawn is in the position on the right, looking along the same direction as the incoming light, it cannot see those shadows, because there is no line of sight to those hidden locations. In that special position, where Ceres is at opposition, every point on the ground Dawn sees is lit. When Dawn is in the position on the left, it does have a direct line of sight to some (although not all) shadows, as shown by the black dotted lines. Some of the ground it sees is lit and some is not. The difference between these two perspectives is the shadow-hiding component of the opposition surge. (Remember that these crystals are too tiny for Dawn to discern. One pixel in the explorer’s camera would take in this entire scene, so what matters is the total lit surface here, not the fine details.) Now at location 1, there are crystals that happen to point directly at Dawn when it is on the left, and at location 2, there are crystals that point directly at Dawn when it is on the right. You can see that at opposition, the shadows are hidden for both crystal orientations. But when Dawn is on the left, crystals pointing directly at it don’t provide a fully lit scene. Shadows are still visible. So, shadow hiding does not depend on any special alignment of crystals on the ground. It is the special observing location that matters. In summary, the ground appears brighter to Dawn when it is at opposition than when it is elsewhere. Although all crystals here are the same size, different crystal sizes may yield different shadowing and hence different opposition surge signatures. So, with a good measurement of the opposition surge, the crystal sizes may be determined. The self-portrait at right (biceps not to scale) is provided to illustrate your correspondent’s artistic skills. It should help you calibrate the fine details of the rest of the image. There are many simplifications here. In other words, take this diagram with a grain of sodium carbonate.

The opposition surge was first described scientifically in 1887 by Hugo von Seeliger, an accomplished astronomer and highly esteemed teacher of astronomers. He analyzed data collected by Gustav Müller when Earth’s and Saturn’s orbits around the sun brought Saturn into opposition, and the brightness of the rings increased unexpectedly. Seeliger realized that shadow hiding among the myriad particles in the rings could explain Müller’s observations. The opposition surge is occasionally known as the Seeliger effect. (Although astronomers had been observing the rings for more than two centuries by then, a careful scientific analysis to show that the rings were not solid but rather composed of many small particles had only been completed about 30 years before Seeliger’s advance.)

Now astronomers recognize the opposition surge on many solar system bodies, including Earth’s moon and the moons of other planets, as well as Mars and asteroids. In fact, it also occurs on many materials on Earth, including vegetation. Scientists exploit the phenomenon to determine the character of materials at a distance when they can make careful measurements at opposition.

For many solar system objects, however, it is difficult or impossible to position the observer along the line between the sun and the target. But thanks to the extraordinary maneuverability provided by Dawn’s ion engine, we may be able to perform the desired measurement in Occator Crater.

Occator in 3D

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Occator in 3D
This 3-D image of part of Occator Crater, the brightest area on Ceres, was created with photos from Dawn’s lowest altitude orbit at 240 miles (385 kilometers). The spacecraft took pictures of this scenery from different angles, forming stereo views. To perceive the 3-D, you need colored filters, with red for your left eye and blue for your right. (You can get a 4-D view by looking at it for a while. However, apart from the daily and annual changes in the angle of the incoming sunlight, no changes are expected to be discernible even over a few years.) If you don’t have access to stereo glasses, you can see a more conventional photo here. The bright region on the left, Cerealia Facula, is about nine miles (14 kilometers) across, and the stereo reveals a dome that rises to about 1,300 feet (400 meters). The other bright areas are collectively called Vinalia Faculae. Occator is on this map at 20°N, 239°E. Full image and caption.

It was nearly a century after Seeliger’s description of shadow hiding before scientists realized that there is another contributor to the opposition surge, which we mention only briefly here. It depends on the principle of constructive interference, which applies more in physics than in politics. Waves (in this case, light waves) that have their crests at the same places can add up to be especially strong (which makes the light bright). (Destructive interference, which may be more evident outside of the physics realm, occurs when troughs of one wave cancel crests of another.) We will not delve into why constructive interference tends to occur at opposition, but anyone with a thorough understanding of classical electromagnetic theory can work it out, as physicists did in the 1960s to 1980s. (More properly, it should be formulated not classically but quantum mechanically, but we recognize that some readers will prefer the former methodology because it is, as one physicist described it in 1968, "much simpler and more satisfying to the physical intuition." So, why make it hard?) For convenient use to ruin parties, the most common term for constructive interference in the opposition surge is coherent backscatter, but it sometimes goes by the other comparably self-explanatory terms weak photon localization and time reversal symmetry. Regardless of the name, as the light waves interact with the material they are illuminating at opposition, constructive interference can produce a surge in brightness.

The intensity of the opposition surge depends on the details of the material reflecting the light. Even the relative contributions of shadow hiding and coherent backscatter depend on the properties of the materials. (While both cause the reflected light to grow stronger as the angle to opposition shrinks, coherent backscatter tends to dominate at the very smallest angles.)

Especially sensitive laboratory measurements show that sometimes shadow hiding and coherent backscatter together are not sufficient to explain the result, so there must be even more to the opposition surge. The unique capability of science to explain the natural world, shown over and over and over again during the last half millennium, provides confidence that a detailed theoretical understanding eventually will be attained.

Part of science’s success derives from its combination of experiment and theory. For now, however, the opposition surge is more in the domain of the former than the latter. In other words, translating any opposition surge observation into a useful description of the properties of the reflecting material requires controlled laboratory measurements of well characterized materials. They provide the basis for interpreting the observation.

Seasons on Ceres

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Seasons on Ceres
This short animation shows how the illumination of the northern hemisphere changes as Ceres’ axial tilt changes from 2 to 12 to 20 degrees. (In each frame, the lighting is shown on the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its greatest northern latitude.) We have discussed the orientation of the dwarf planet’s axis before. As we saw, it is tipped only 4 degrees, causing much more modest changes in lighting throughout each Cerean year (which is 4.6 terrestrial years) than Earth (and perhaps your planet) experiences. However, the gravitational tugs of Jupiter and Saturn, despite their distance, tip the axis. The angle can change from as little as 2 degrees to as much as 20 degrees in only about 12,000 years, which astronomers consider to be very fast. (Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees and is stabilized by the moon. Mars, which lacks a sizable moon, also goes through dramatic changes in axial tilt, although much more slowly than Ceres.) The angle of the sun near the poles is an important factor for where ice might accumulate. The animation shows the regions that would stay in shadow throughout every Cerean day of a full Cerean year, with blue for 2 and 12 degrees and red for 20 degrees. (The blue at 12 degrees is difficult to see.) When the sun goes farther north, it shines deeper into craters, illuminating and warming locations that would remain in shadow if the sun could not rise as high in the sky. Full image and caption.

If Dawn accomplishes the tricky measurements (which we will describe next month), scientists will compare the Cerealia Facula opposition surge with lab measurements of the opposition surge. As always in good science, to establish the details of the experiments, they will start by integrating the knowledge already available, including the tremendous trove of data Dawn has already collected -- spectra of neutrons, gamma rays, visible light and infrared light plus extensive color and stereo photography and gravity measurements. In the context of their understanding of physics, chemistry and geology throughout the solar system, scientists will determine not only the mixtures of chemicals to test but also the properties such as grain sizes and how densely packed the particles are. They will perform experiments then on many combinations of credible facular composition and properties. Comparing those results with Dawn’s findings, they will be able to elucidate more about what really is on the ground in that mesmerizing crater. For example, if they determine the salt crystals are small, that may mean that salty water had been on the ground and sublimated quickly in the vacuum of space. But if the salt came out of solution more slowly underground and was later pushed to the surface by other geological processes, the crystals would be larger.

It is an impressive demonstration of the power of science that we can navigate an interplanetary spaceship to a particular location high above the mysterious, lustrous landscape of a distant alien world and gain insight into some details that would be too fine for you to see even if you were standing on the ground. Using the best of science, Dawn is teasing every secret it can from a relict from the dawn of the solar system. On behalf of everyone who appreciates the majesty of the cosmos, our dedicated, virtuoso artist is adding exquisite touches to what is already a masterpiece.

Dawn is 31,400 miles (50,500 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.48 AU (324 million miles, or 521 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,430 times as far as the moon and 3.48 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 58 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT March 30, 2017

Read more: mission status, asteroids, Dawn, asteroid 1 Ceres

You are here:
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman

Dawn Chief Engineer and Mission Director for Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Read more articles by Marc Rayman

Comments & Sharing
MER
Let's Change the World

Become a member of The Planetary Society and together we will create the future of space exploration.

Join Today

Emily Lakdwalla
The Planetary Fund

Support enables our dedicated journalists to research deeply and bring you original space exploration articles.

Donate