More bright spots on Ceres baffle astronomers

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

New images of Ceres captured by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft reveal that there are more of those mysterious bright spots than previously believed, as well as a unique pyramid-shaped peak and a handful of other unique features on the surface of the far-off dwarf planet.

According to the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the latest images were taken during Dawn’s second mapping orbit at a distance of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above Ceres and show at least eight small spots located in a surface crater.

The crater, which is approximately six miles (nine kilometers) wide, also features one area that is brighter than the others. Scientists still are not certain what type of highly reflective material makes up the spots, though the most likely candidates remain ice and salt, NASA said.

Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer makes it possible for scientists to identify the specific minerals present on Ceres by detecting how each reflects light in the visible and infrared spectrums. This will make it possible for them to determine the composition of the dwarf planet, and as more data is collected, gain more information about the spots.

Pyramid-shaped mountain, various-sized craters also found

However, the spots aren’t the only fascinating feature Dawn has uncovered on Ceres. The new images show a pyramid-shaped mountain with steep slopes in an otherwise smooth region of the dwarf planet’s surface. It raises approximately three miles (five kilometers) above the ground.

The spacecraft has also found several craters of various sizes, many of which have central peaks, and evidence of past activity on the surface. That activity includes flows, landslides, and collapsed structures, and indicates that Ceres has more remnants of past activity than Vesta, the protoplanet studied by Dawn over a 14-month span in 2011 and 2012.

Dawn, the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, will continue to take images and collect other data from Ceres from its current altitude through the end of the month. Starting in July, it will begin moving into its next orbit at an altitude of 900 miles (1,450 kilometers).

“The surface of Ceres has revealed many interesting and unique features,” said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the Dawn mission at JPL. “For example, icy moons in the outer solar system have craters with central pits, but on Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common. These and other features will allow us to understand the inner structure of Ceres that we cannot sense directly.”


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