NASA scientists have been stymied by the discovery of a large, bright white spot on the dwarf planet Ceres, which has been revealed in images from the Dawn spacecraft, set to soon arrive at the unusual celestial object.
The white spot appeared in a series of photographs of Ceres taken on January 13, according to Space.com. Though the images were released on January 19, just what has caused the anomaly on the dwarf planet, which is located between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt, remains undetermined, according to mission director and chief engineer Marc Rayman.
“Yes, we can confirm that it is something on Ceres that reflects more sunlight, but what that is remains a mystery,” he said.
— Popular Science (@PopSci) January 23, 2015
The new images reveal shades of light and dark on the surface of Ceres, a unique planetary body within the solar system. Though it is the largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres is classified both as a dwarf planet and an asteroid. It also represents the smallest orb in the system to be defined as a dwarf planet.
“We do not know what the white spot is, but it’s certainly intriguing,” Rayman observed. “In fact, it makes you want to send a spacecraft there to find out, and of course that is exactly what we are doing! So as Dawn brings Ceres into sharper focus, we will be able to see with exquisite detail what [the white spot] is.”
— Motherboard (@motherboard) January 23, 2015
The Dawn spacecraft marks the first mission to Ceres, and is set to arrive at the dwarf planet in March of this year. The spacecraft has traveled 3.1 billion miles over the last seven years, according to Popular Science, pushed toward the asteroid belt at just 450 mph by a set of ion thrusters.
Scientists know precious little about Ceres, which has a diameter of 590 miles, as the Inquisitr previously reported, and a surface area four times larger than the state of Texas. Astronomers have previously observed water vapor plumes erupting off Ceres, thought to be the product of ice geysers referred to as “cryovolcanos.” Though much of its mass is believed to be composed of water, some speculate that the Dawn mission will determine that the dwarf planet possesses a rocky, barren surface.
— Universe Today (@universetoday) January 20, 2015
Although it is unclear what Dawn will find when it reaches the dwarf planet, the spacecraft already has a mystery to solve in the form of Ceres’ unusual white spot.
[Image: NASA via Space.com]