Scientists have found that those strange “bright spots” on Ceres only get more mysterious the more they are studied. Researchers scrutinizing the phenomenon on the dwarf planet recently detected that the intensely bright areas on Ceres tend to get brighter during the small world’s “daytime.” That’s not all they found, and it could lead to the possible discovery of alien life on Ceres.
Astrowatch reported May 26 that newly perused data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which first detected the bright anomalies on Ceres as it approached the dwarf planet, was adding to the mystery of the bright spots. A team of astronomers headed by Paolo Molaro of the Trieste Astronomical Observatory in Italy, after taking a closer look at the intriguing phenomenon, found that the reflective areas on Ceres’ surface were intensifying in the daylight and showed other variations as well.
Molaro and his team employed the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), the most accurate instrument of its kind, for their observations. The initial findings, though, were so unexpected, they considered the data suspect and possibly caused by instrument failure. A second run found like readings, so the team deemed the radial velocity anomalies conclusions correct. The team also noticed that the anomalous data coincided with the bright spots located in the Occator crater on Ceres being visible from Earth.
Molaro told Astrowatch,
“We know nothing about these changes, really. And this increases the mystery of these spots.”
So what is causing the intensification of the bright spots? One hypothesis put forward by the team is that there is the possibility that volatile substances might be evaporating in the solar radiation. They posit that the substances produce plumes that heighten the brightening effect during Ceres’ daytime. When sunlight fades, the plumes evaporate quickly, producing the very noticeable changes in luminosity.
Molaro says that, given Ceres’ known abundance of water, “water ice or clathrates hydrates are the most natural hypotheses” to go with when discussing the bright spots. He notes that the Dawn mission team would likely find the answer in the coming months.
The variability in the brightness of Ceres’ bright spots needs confirmation and further study. Studies of the phenomenon under higher resolution are underway.
The importance of the team’s theory is that it points to the very real possibility that Ceres might be geologically active. And, again, given the known presence of water on the dwarf planet, it could also point to the possible presence of microbial life of some kind. Molaro and his colleagues expounded on that possibility as well.
“Life as we know it on Earth needs liquid water, biogenic elements and a stable source of energy. Is Ceres a good place to have these things simultaneously and for a substantial amount of time, like billions of years? Nobody knows at the moment.”
The search for alien life in the Solar System is moving ahead on other worlds as well. Astrobiology Magazine reports that a recent study by James Wray at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Janice Bishop of the SETI Institute reveals that carbonates discovered beneath the surface of Mars suggest a warmer and wetter environment some time in that Red Planet’s distant past. The researchers, studying impact craters and troughs in Mars’ Huygens basin, were able to study exposed, ancient subsurface materials to reach their conclusions. The carbonates, which are widespread and calcium- and iron-rich, are indicative of a more watery place. And with the presence of water, there is the possibility of alien life.
As for the Molaro team, it now awaits data that will come in from the Dawn spacecraft in the coming months to see if its conclusions are confirmed, found wanting, or might need further study for corroboration or dismissal. The Dawn spacecraft’s mission is to study the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres in an effort to better understand the conditions that existed during the formation of the Solar System. To date, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dawn has completed over 1,000 revolutions around Ceres.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]