New NASA photos released this week reveal that there is a lone four-mile-high mountain — once dubbed “The Great Pyramid” — rising out of bare plain on the dwarf planet Ceres that has strange brightly reflective streaks along its sides. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft now orbits Ceres at a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers), capturing the largest body in the Asteroid Belt in greater detail than ever before. And with it, of course, is that mysterious “lonely mountain”…
Space.com reported August 25 that the latest photos sent back by the Dawn space probe are of the highest resolution (450 feet per pixel) thus far obtained by its imaging instruments. And although the spacecraft has yet to shed light on the mysterious “bright spots” of Ceres, it has provided scientists with a closer look at the dwarf planet’s surface, not to mention added to its list of unexplained anomalies — like the “lonely mountain.”
The “lonely mountain,” which juts up from Ceres’ surface exclusive of any mountain range, stands 21,120 feet (6,437 meters) tall. According to NASA, the mountain’s base is sharply defined, and there is “almost no accumulated debris” at the base itself. But, as the photo shows, as amazing as the mountain’s solitary existence might be, the brightly streaked sides provide a mystery to be solved. Like the “bright spots,” scientists are puzzled by them.
NASA just might get some answers during this round of orbital viewing and mapping. The Dawn spacecraft will map the entire surface of Ceres six times in the next two months. This will provide a base for rendering 3-D maps of the dwarf planet.
In October, Dawn will drop to a position of 230 miles above Ceres’ surface. It is hoped that the proximity will allow scientists to gain enough data to figure out the dwarf planet’s little mysteries.
Besides the “bright spots” that have been causing endless speculation concerning their origin (from alien structures to volcanism to plain old ice) since Dawn began its final approach to Ceres, it was the “pyramid” mountain that caught the world’s attention in June. That particular surface feature rose an estimated three miles high (later discovered to be a mile taller) and at first was thought to have shear sides, thus leading to its nickname of “The Great Pyramid.” A closer look a month later indicated that the sides weren’t as shear as they had appeared in the earlier NASA photos, the shape of the mountain being somewhat conical.
The Dawn mission began in September 2007 and completed the first phase of its prime mission (to explore Vesta and Ceres to better understand the early formation of the Solar System) after spending 14 months in 2011 and 2012 orbiting the massive asteroid Vesta. The space probe arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015 and began the second phase of its prime mission. The prime mission is slated to end in late 2015. (According to NASA engineer Keri Bean, the mission will definitively end when the Dawn spacecraft runs out of hydrazine, a fuel used for directional maneuvering. That will occur sometime in 2016, she told Popular Science.)