NASA's Dawn spacecraft has succeeded in capturing the most detailed views to date of the solitary mountain nicknamed Ahuna Mons, discovered on the dwarf planet Ceres. The images that were captured by Dawn in December 2015 will hopefully help shed light on some of the many mysteries surrounding the mountain, including its as-of-yet unknown creation process.
So unusual was the mountain compared to the surrounding terrain, that it was detected before the spacecraft had successfully made orbit around the dwarf planet on March 6, 2015, appearing as a small, bright bump from Dawn's perspective 29,000 miles (46,000 km) distant from the rapidly-approaching planetoid.
For a full year Dawn has been performing a delicate ballet as it systematically reduced its distance to Ceres, culminating in the spacecraft maneuvering into its third and final mapping orbit. Orbiting at a height of roughly 240 miles (385 km) above the dwarf planet's surface, the spacecraft was able to capture Ahuna Mons with a resolution approximately 120 times times greater than the first image that led to the discovery of the solitary mountain in February 2015.
The top-down image of Ahuna Mons represents a composite created from a number of separate shots taken with a resolution of 120 ft (35 m) per pixel. The finished piece highlights the unusual form of the mountain, as well as the varying coverage of brighter material marking its sides. Dawn's science team is not yet sure whether the strange markings represent the same bright substance present in the now famous Occator crater.
A side-on perspective of Ahuna Mons was also included in the release, with a second 3D version of the same image provided for those with anaglyph 3D glasses.
NASA believes that Ahuna Mons may not be as unique as it first appeared, with the agency noting several other locations sharing similar geological features, though none as well-formed or distinctive as the lonely mountain.
"Ceres has defied our expectations and surprised us in many ways, thanks to a year's worth of data from Dawn," states Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "We are hard at work on the mysteries the spacecraft has presented to us."