Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a crater nearly 100 kilometres wide and 4km deep.
The world around you is an incredibly dark, cindery-looking place – the colour you’d expect to find inside a black toner cartridge.
You are surrounded by rocks and mounds, with the steep walls of the crater in the distance. But in front of you, in the middle of the crater, is a mountain of bright, shimmering crystals.
It’s called Cerealia Tholus, a rounded peak at the centre of the Occator crater. It’s the brightest spot on the dwarf planet Ceres – and according to findings published today, it’s one of the most interesting places in the solar system.
“It’s such an alien landscape,” says Carol Raymond, a program scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and the only dwarf planet inside the orbit of Neptune.
“To me, it’s just so beautiful because it has so much complexity and so much mystery,” Dr Raymond says.
And she knows what she’s talking about: Dr Raymond is a co-author on each of the seven papers about Ceres, all published in Nature Research journals today.
The papers are packed with data from the last phase of the Dawn mission, when the spacecraft dipped as close as 35km to the dwarf planet’s surface, focussing in particular on the 20-million-year-old Occator crater.
This allowed the research team to analyse the planet with more precision than had ever been achieved at an icy body before.
“Wow,” says Michele Bannister from the University of Canterbury, an astrophysicist and keen observer of the mission. “I keep coming back to how impressive this dataset is.
Far from being a primitive relic from the start of the solar system, as we once thought, this new data shows that Ceres certainly hasn’t just sat around for the last four and a half billion years.