As spacecraft Dawn edges closer to the dwarf planet Ceres, one thing is clear: this is no rock and ice ducky like comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Aside from that, it's like a Rorschach inkblot test of fuzzy pixels as we try to guess what awaits our robotic explorer on this alien world.
Top image: Raw image of Ceres seen by the Dawn spacecraft on January 13, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
After a brief hiccup with the ion drive, Dawn is en route to arrive in orbit around Ceres on March 6th. At 383,000 kilometers, we hit the crossing point where images from Dawn are higher-resolution than the fuzzy mess captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004, but are still evocative of almost-identifiable features.
Processed image of Ceres from 383,000 kilometers (238,000 miles) away as seen by Dawn on January 13, 2015. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Are those craters? Is that dark line a linear feature, or merely a string of craters blurring together? That bright spot shows up time and time again from many angles; just what is it?
An hour's worth of Ceres observations. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Ceres is about 27 pixels across in these images, an improvement of about three times the resolution of the images taken in December and about 80% of Hubble's resolution of the dwarf planet. While they're fun for guesswork, the primary purpose of these images is for navigation.
Visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) of Ceres. In the infrared temperature map, white is warm and red is cool. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF