Ever since they were discovered by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, the nature of the two mysterious bright spots in a crater on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres -- the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter -- have been a subject of speculation. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently launched a website inviting members of the public to join in the debate over the nature of the bright spots.
The nature of the bright spots continue to baffle NASA scientists even after the agency's Dawn spacecraft entered into orbit around Ceres on March 6. According to NASA, the nature of the bright spots will remain a mystery until Ceres is able to have a closer look and collect additional data.
But meanwhile, NASA has made the unusual move of inviting the public to participate in the debate about the nature of bright spots.
Speculation about the nature of the bright spot began after NASA announced discovery of the spots. And although NASA declined to offer an official explanation, scientists made several suggestions
Some said the lights could be frozen ice pools at the bottom of a crater acting as reflective surface. Others suggested it could be due to "volcanic-like" activity or salt deposits.
Conspiracy theorists also contributed suggestions. UFO and alien enthusiasts suggested the lights could be evidence of an alien civilization on Ceres.
They derided the suggestion that the lights were from volcanoes, saying that volcanoes give red and orange light and not white light. But scientists pointed out that certain types of volcanoes called cryovolcanoes that form on icy asteroids could give the type of light spotted on Ceres.
UFO Sighting Daily's Scott Waring suggested they were either electric lights or massive reflectors on a pair of massive doors to the entrance of an underground alien space station. He speculated the lights were beacons to guide alien space ships approaching the entrance to an underground base or a space station.
Other conspiracy theorists thought that aliens were probably trying to contact other civilizations.
Scientists had hoped that Dawn would be able to obtain images with sufficiently high resolution to solve the mystery after it enters orbit. But since it entered orbit on March 6 the mystery has remained unsolved.
The first photographs taken as the space probe approached the dwarf planet on January 13 had revealed a single bright spot located in a basin. But Dawn sent an image on February 19, taken from a distance of 29,000 miles, which revealed a second dimmer spot located in the same basin.
Dawn snapped new images from a distance of about 14,000 miles on April 14 and 15 after it entered orbit on March 6. But even the resolution delivered at that distance was not sufficient to resolve the mystery.
The latest images were snapped on April 24-26 from a distance of 8,500 miles.
The probe will move even closer on May 9.
While NASA scientists await more detailed data from Dawn to help solve the mystery, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched a website where visitors are allowed to contribute a guess to solve the mystery.
"Can you guess what's creating those unusual bright spots on Ceres? On March 6, NASA's Dawn spacecraft began orbiting Ceres, the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Even before the spacecraft arrived at the dwarf planet, images revealed mysterious bright spots that captivated scientists and observers alike. Until Dawn gets a closer look over the next few months, it's anyone's guess what those spots could be. So, go ahead! Cast your vote."The options available include volcano, geyser, rock, ice, salt deposit, and "other."
The option "other" presumably includes conspiracy theorists' favorite explanation -- a technological alien civilization on the dwarf planet.
And it appears that the "other" option is popular among visitors. The chart above gives a breakdown of the voting pattern so far, with option "ice" being the most favored (33 percent) and "other" being the second most favored option with 29 percent of the votes.
[Images: NASA via Open Minds]