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NASA’s colourful maps of Ceres showcase a diverse topography

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NASA has released a set of colourful maps of dwarf planet Ceres created using photographs taken by its Dawn spacecraft.

Based on the details received from Dawn, NASA scientists say that the height difference crater bottoms and mountain peaks as great as 9 miles (15 kilometers).

Some of the craters have been officially named with names inspired by spirits and deities relating to agriculture from a variety of cultures. The International Astronomical Union recently approved a batch of names for features on Ceres.

Occator, the mysterious crater containing Ceres’ brightest spots, has a diameter of about 60 miles (90 kilometers) and a depth of about 2 miles (4 kilometers). The crater has been named after Occator – the Roman agriculture deity of harrowing, a method of leveling soil.

There is this smaller crater with bright material, which was previously called “Spot 1”. It has now been identified as Haulani, after the Hawaiian plant goddess. This crater has a diameter of about 20 miles (30 kilometers) – third of that of Occator. The surprising bit about this crater is that it seems to be colder than most of the territory around it – based on the temperature data from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer.

Named after the Ghanaian god associated with the planting of corn, the Dantu crater is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) across and 3 miles (5 kilometers) deep. A crater called Ezinu, after the Sumerian goddess of grain, is about the same size. Both are less than half the size of Kerwan, named after the Hopi spirit of sprouting maize, and Yalode, a crater named after the African Dahomey goddess worshipped by women at harvest rites.

“The craters we find on Ceres, in terms of their depth and diameter, are very similar to what we see on Dione and Tethys, two icy satellites of Saturn that are about the same size and density as Ceres. The features are pretty consistent with an ice-rich crust,” said Dawn science team member Paul Schenk, a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston.

“The impact craters Dantu and Ezinu are extremely deep, while the much larger impact basins Kerwan and Yalode exhibit much shallower depth, indicating increasing ice mobility with crater size and age,” said Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn science team member at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin.

Almost directly south of Occator is Urvara, a crater named for the Indian and Iranian deity of plants and fields. Urvara, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 3 miles (6 kilometers) deep, has a prominent central pointy peak that is 2 miles (3 kilometers) high.

Dawn has had a successful spell of information collection during its two mapping orbits and is now spiraling toward its third science orbit, 900 miles (less than 1,500 kilometers) above the surface, or three times closer to Ceres than its previous orbit. It is expected to reach this orbit in mid-August and begin taking images and other data again.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to analyze the latest data from Dawn as the spacecraft makes its way to its third mapping orbit.

Ceres is the largest object in the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter making it about 40 per cent the size of Pluto, another dwarf planet, which NASA’s New Horizons mission flew by earlier this month.

On March 6, 2015, Dawn made history as the first mission to reach a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct extraterrestrial targets. It conducted extensive observations of Vesta in 2011-2012.