NASA has released new images of the dwarf planet Ceres, taken by the Dawn spacecraft as it approaches the distant object, revealing its two mysterious bright spots in their closest detail yet.
Dawn took the images from a distance of just 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), according to CNET, making them the highest resolution photographs of the bright spots, which have stymied astronomers. NASA points out that the images seem to reveal that the bright spots are composed of many smaller reflective structures, which could likely be caused by ice on the surface, according to Christopher Russell, the Dawn mission’s principal investigator.
“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,” he noted.
— NASA (@NASA) May 11, 2015
The resolution of the new images makes each pixel roughly equivalent to 1.3 kilometers of Ceres’ surface, according to Slate. Though it is difficult to discern at this point exactly what is responsible for the reflective bright spots, their true nature will soon be revealed when Dawn enters a second mapping orbit around Ceres on June 6. At that time, the spacecraft will be circling Ceres at a distance of just 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers), three times closer than its current orbit. Further images are expected as Dawn descends in the coming weeks, which may reveal the bright spots in even better detail.
— mars_stu (@mars_stu) May 11, 2015
The spots, while unusual, have sparked fascination from UFO observers, who assert that they represent proof of intelligent alien life on Ceres. As the Inquisitr has previously reported, NASA researchers have also suggested that the bright spots could be the result of salt deposits on the surface of Ceres, rather than ice.
— NASA360 (@NASA360) May 11, 2015
The largest asteroid in the belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, Ceres is a dark object, reflecting just 10 percent of the sunlight that strikes its surface. Though there are some asteroids that are darker than Ceres, many others have a reflectivity in the range of 20 percent, with at least one unusually bright example reflecting 40 percent.
Dawn is set to spend the coming months studying the composition and surface of Ceres with a variety of instruments, shedding light not only on the nature of the mysterious bright spots, but also the dwarf planet itself.
[Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA via Slate]