NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is currently orbiting dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, at an altitude of 2,700 miles above its rocky surface. Back in mid-February, Dawn spotted some mysterious bright spots on the surface that kicked off a rash of speculation as to what their source could be. Over the past few weeks, NASA has continued to release images from the dwarf planet, and Dawn is scheduled to move even closer to the surface after it completes its eighth trip around Ceres.
Noteworthy images of Ceres:
In this image, released on June 10th, the bright spots are depicted in sharper detail than ever before. The bright spots occur in a crater about 55 miles across and contain different individual bright points that cluster around a central source
This image, captured by Dawn on June 6th and released on June 16th, shows a bright, reflective area in a large crater on Ceres’ surface. While various explanations for the bright spots have been proposed, the recent higher resolution images suggest it could just be reflective patches of ice or salts. This would make sense, as a European Space Agency team reported early last year that the planet may contain more freshwater than Earth.
Another intriguing feature of the surface of Ceres is the three-mile high pyramid-shaped mountain jutting out of a relatively flat surface, seen in the upper right of this image released on Wednesday.
This image depicts a massive crater in Ceres’ southern hemisphere.
An image taken by Dawn on June 6 reveals an even more heavily pockmarked northern hemisphere.
Gorgeous pictures aside, the bright spots have scientists more intrigued than anything else.
“The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we’ve seen before in the solar system. The science team is working to understand their source. Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt. With closer views from the new orbit and multiple view angles, we soon will be better able to determine the nature of this enigmatic phenomenon,” said Dawn mission principal investigator Chris Russell.
Dawn has yet to provide the closest and sharpest images of Ceres’ surface, which will hopefully give scientists the evidence they need to solve the mystery on everyone’s minds.