NASA releases new image of mysterious bright spots on dwarf planet Ceres

NASA launched the Dawn spacecraft in 2007 with the aim of exploring a dwarf planet in our solar system. No, not Pluto — that was the task of New Horizons. Dawn made its way out to the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars to scope out Ceres. As it approached, the world was captivated by unusual bright speckles on the surface of the planetoid. NASA has just published a new image of the mysterious bright spots as scientists get ever closer to understanding Ceres.

At roughly 961 kilometers (597 miles) in diameter, Ceres is a little less than half the size of Pluto. Depending on how you want to define a planet, Ceres could almost be a fit. It’s round and shows signs of geological activity. However, it doesn’t have enough gravity to clear space around it in the asteroid belt. Pluto is a more famous dwarf planet, and we now know it has a complex geology and even weather, but Ceres is much closer.

Dawn used an ion thruster to make its way out to Ceres, arriving in March of 2015. Unlike New Horizons, Dawn has remained in orbit of its target to scan as much of the surface as possible. NASA has changed the orbital altitude several times, now in its sixth orbit. Most recently, Dawn moved to an altitude of 960 miles (1480 kilometers), which is how the latest images of the bright spots were captured.

As seen above, the bright spots are found around the middle of a crater some 57 miles wide known as Occator Crater. There are several other areas on Ceres that show the same bright spots, but these are by far the most prominent. NASA says this area exhibits signs of geological activity in the not-too-distant past. The current thinking is that the spots are salt deposits left behind on the surface where salty liquid evaporated away. That we see them in a crater is no coincidence; researchers suspect the impact that formed Occator Crater likely precipitated the release of salty liquid from the dwarf planet’s interior.

dawn-ceres-in-color

In addition to the neat shot of Occator Crater, NASA has created a composite image of Ceres that approximated what you’d see if you looked at it. The image (above) is composed of images taken during the probe’s first orbit in 2015. It combines the framing camera’s red, blue, and green filters to get close to Ceres’ natural color. Maybe one day a human will actually see Ceres in person, but for now we have to rely upon our robotic helpers.

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