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What Are Ceres' Bright Spots? Closest Yet, and Experts Still Can't Say

Jun 12, 2015 04:12 AM EDT
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New images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft have brought humanity a mere 2,700 miles above the surface of the protoplanet known as Ceres. Now, for the first time ever, experts are able to see the nooks and crannies of this alien world in stunning detail; and even still, two "bright spots" on its surface remain a mystery.

According to NASA, Dawn slipped into to its current orbit last weekend (June 6) and will remain at this distance until the end of the month. Then, it will slowly drop into closer and closer orbits.

Even before Dawn closed in this much, there was one thing investigators could say about the protoplanet: it certainly won't give up it's secrets easily.

"The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we've seen before in the solar system," Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission based at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA) A large crater in the southern hemisphere of dwarf planet Ceres is seen in this image taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on June 6, 2015. This is the first time that the dwarf planet has been observed so closely.

According to Russell, the exact nature of the bright spots - namely, what is causing them - remains unknown. However, what NASA is certain about is that this isn't spotlight-toting aliens trying to make contact.

"Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice," the scientist announced when Dawn was about 4,500 miles from Ceres' surface last month. (Scroll to read on...)


[Credit: NASA JPL / Dawn mission]

Now with Ceres 1,800 miles closer and in a steady orbit, Russell stands by that assertion.

"Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt," he added. "With closer views from the new orbit and multiple view angles, we soon will be better able to determine the nature of this enigmatic phenomenon."

It is estimated that the largest of the two spots is within a crater that's about 55 miles wide.

Other theories involve the Sun's light playing off thick plumes from a geyser or volcano. This second idea remains less likely, simply because the bright spots appear very static. However, nothing is certain. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF) Images from Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) show a portion of Ceres' cratered northern hemisphere. Efforts such as this will be directed towards the "bright spots" as Dawn draws closer to Ceres' surface.

Still, as an avid sci-fi reader, I personally remain partial to the idea that the spots are actually sprawling extraterrestrial villas made entirely out of crystal. Or perhaps they are reflective glyphs, left by our solar system's first inhabitants - messages for Earth's greatest mind to decipher.

Until Dawn draws closer and closer to Ceres in the month's to come, you might as well fantasize while you can!

Want to learn more about the mysterious dwarf planet and why Ceres is visiting it? More here.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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