Well … the Dawn spacecraft is getting closer to dwarf planet Ceres, and the mysterious bright spots on Ceres surface are looking clearer, but, currently, there’s no new information on what these weird spots might be. Scientists are having fun contemplating the spots along with the rest of us. In fact, NASA wants you to vote on what you think they might be. See the graphic below. In the meantime, enjoy this latest image of Ceres, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on June 6, 2015 and released June 10. These are among the first snapshots from Dawn’s second mapping orbit, which is 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above Ceres.
Ceres has several bright spots, and the spots in the photo above, brightest of Ceres’ bright spots, are known as Spot 5. They’re in a crater about 55 miles (90 kilometers) across. As you can see, the spots consist of many individual bright points of differing sizes, with a central cluster.
Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission based at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a June 10 statement from NASA.
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.
Personally, I’m hoping for a Rendezvous with Rama type of outcome, but that’s (sadly) unlikely. The graphic below gives some of the more likely possibilities.
Actually, the new June 6 image of the Ceres bright spots – which looks pretty much identical (to my eye) to the other images, just bigger – kinda makes me think of this great final scene from Steve Martin’s classic movie The Jerk. If you watch it, maybe you’ll see what I mean, plus you’ll get to see Steve Martin dance!
NASA said in its recent statement:
Numerous other features on Ceres intrigue scientists as they contrast this world with others, including protoplanet Vesta, which Dawn visited for 14 months in 2011 and 2012. Craters abound on both bodies, but Ceres appears to have had more activity on its surface, with evidence of flows, landslides and collapsed structures.
Additionally, new images from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) show a portion of Ceres’ cratered northern hemisphere, taken on May 16, including a true-color view and a temperature image. The temperature image is derived from data in the infrared light range. This instrument is also important in determining the nature of the bright spots.
Dawn began orbiting Ceres on March 6, 2015. It made history on that date as the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet and first to orbit two worlds beyond Earth (it orbited Vesta for 14 months, beginning in 2011).
Since arriving at Ceres, Dawn moved on June 3 from an original orbit to a second, closer orbit. The spacecraft will observe the dwarf planet from 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above its surface until June 28.
It will then move toward its next orbit of altitude 900 miles (1,450 kilometers), arriving in early August.
Bottom line: New image of the bright spots of dwarf planet Ceres, taken June 6, 2015.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.