Bright spots on Ceres continue to puzzle astronomers

Excerpt from sciencetimes.com

NASA has released the most brilliant images of Ceres to date, truly showcasing the surface of the dwarf planet located in the asteroid belt.  The new images could help scientists at NASA finally explain the unusually bright spots that have been puzzling researchers since the first images of the dwarf planet were sent back to Earth.

The new images were taken of Ceres by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft between May 3 and 4 from a of 8,400 miles.  The images that the bright spots in a crater on Ceres’ are actually composed of many smaller spots.  The exact nature of the spots is unknown but scientists believe they could be caused by ice on the surface.

“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles, in a statement.

Dawn will enter its second mapping orbit on June 9.  For the mission, Dawn will move even closer to the surface circling the dwarf planet every three days at a distance of 2,700 miles.  This second mapping orbit, also known as the survey orbit, will allow the spacecraft to comprehensively map the surface of Ceres, according to NASA.  At this Dawn should also be able to determine if Ceres is geologically active.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft successfully entered the orbit of Ceres on March 6, making history as the first craft to successfully achieve orbit around a dwarf planet.  This wasn’t the only history making event in Dawn’s life.  Previously, the craft also visited Vesta beginning in 2011 and spent fourteen studying of the largest asteroids in the belt before departing for Ceres.

The Dawn mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory components contributed by European partners from the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.  Dawn is the first spacecraft to utilize ion propulsion, which allowed it to enter and leave the orbits of multiple celestial .

Ceres is a dwarf planet and is the largest object in the asteroid belt measuring about 487 kilometers across and is located between Mars and .  Scientists at NASA hope that by investigating Ceres, they will be able to learn more about the early days of the and how it formed.