NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has recorded a much clearer picture of the bright spots on Ceres, bringing one of the solar system’s most compelling mysteries into even sharper focus than just a few months ago.
The bright spots have intrigued both NASA scientists and amateur astronomers ever since they were first detected, yet no definitive explanation for their existence has so far been reached. Dawn has repeatedly photographed the odd formations, however, and as the spacecraft more closely approaches the surface of Ceres, the reflective areas have been documented in ever-increasing detail.
Great shot kid! New close-up image of Ceres’ Occator crater reveals a shocking discovery. pic.twitter.com/eKh2IpfoBz
— Eric Berger (@chronsciguy) September 9, 2015
The new images sent back from Ceres haven’t explained the bright spots yet, as the Verge notes, but as the spacecraft has approached the dwarf planet, a stunning array of information regarding the crater that houses the largest of the formations has been revealed. Named the Occator crater, it has previously been shown to contain a “mini-atmosphere” of a sort around the spots, which some researchers have asserted is the result of sublimation.
— Finta Zoltan (@dozoek) September 4, 2015
As the image shows, the spots are actually so bright that NASA was forced to create a composite of two exposures from Dawn’s instruments in order to properly visualize them. One view captured the spots themselves, while another exposure was required to properly record the surrounding areas within the crater, as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory points out.
— BBC Earth (@BBCEarth) September 1, 2015
— TechBusy.org (@techbusy) August 30, 2015
Over the next two months, Dawn will map the entire surface of Ceres six times. The data that the probe sends back will be used to create a detailed three dimensional map of the dwarf planet’s surface, imaging not only the bright spots but also the lonely, pyramid-like mountain that was revealed during Dawn’s approach.
While the exact composition of the bright spots has yet to be ascertained, NASA’s research team has concluded that they don’t appear to be formed of ice. Researchers had previously asserted that they could be the result of salt deposits or impact craters, or even a sign of volcanism, but at least for the short term, it appears that the bright spots on Ceres are set to remain a mystery.
[Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]