The changing bright spots of Ceres: New evidence for geological activity?

Artist’s illustration of the brights spots Occator crater and elsewhere, based on a detailed map of the surface compiled from images taken from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres. New observations show that the bright spots change in brightness from day to night, suggesting that they change under the influence of sunlight as Ceres rotates, and may also indicate subsurface geological activity. Image Credit: ESO/L.Calçada/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Steve Albers/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)
Artist’s illustration of the brights spots Occator crater and elsewhere, based on a detailed map of the surface compiled from images taken from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres. New observations show that the bright spots change in brightness from day to night, suggesting that they change under the influence of sunlight as Ceres rotates, and may also indicate subsurface geological activity. Image Credit: ESO/L.Calçada/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Steve Albers/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Ceres is the king of the asteroid belt, being the largest object in that region of the Solar System, and the Dawn spacecraft has shown it to be a very interesting world. While it is relatively small, classified as a dwarf planet, and very cold being so far from the Sun, there are hints that it has been surprisingly geologically active in the past and perhaps still is. Superficially it resembles the Moon or Mercury, gray and covered in craters. But there are also canyons, hazes, and unusual bright spots. Those spots have become a focus of much interest for scientists, and now new studies indicate that they appear to change in brightness from day to night, and may be evidence of ongoing activity inside Ceres.

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Dawn celebrates one year at Ceres with incredible new images of ‘Lonely Mountain’

View of Ahuna Mons from the low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
View of Ahuna Mons from the low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

It has been a year now since the Dawn spacecraft first reached the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and during that time has shown Ceres to be a unique and complex little world. At first glance, Ceres just seems to be a heavily battered place, covered in craters like the Moon or Mercury, but a closer look reveals something more interesting: a small rocky world with large fractures, unusual “bright spots” randomly dispersed across the surface and an odd conical “mountain” which sits in isolation with nothing else like it around. Dawn has already acquired an enormous amount of data about Ceres, but now, in its lowest possible orbit, will continue to do for some time to come.

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Dawn spacecraft begins extensive study of dwarf planet Ceres from lowest orbit

Artist’s conception of Dawn orbiting Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of Dawn orbiting Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Dawn spacecraft just recently entered its lowest and final orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, providing the closest look ever at the puzzling world. Dawn will, of course, be taking thousands more high-resolution photographs, but what else will it be doing during the remainder of its mission? Various aspects of the mission will study Ceres in unprecedented detail.

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First high-resolution images released of Ceres from Dawn’s new lowest orbit

One of the first new images taken in Dawn’s lowest orbit around Ceres, showing the crater chain called Gerber Catena. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
One of the first new images taken in Dawn’s lowest orbit around Ceres, showing the crater chain called Gerber Catena. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

NASA has released the first images of the dwarf planet Ceres from the Dawn spacecraft’s new lowest orbit. This is the closest view that Dawn will have of Ceres and its intriguing white spots, providing an unprecedented look at this small but fascinating world.

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Mystery solved? odd bright spots on Ceres explained as salt deposits

False color view of Occator crater on Ceres, showing the unusual bright spots. The image was taken by the framing camera on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from a distance of about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
False color view of Occator crater on Ceres, showing the unusual bright spots. The image was taken by the framing camera on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from a distance of about 4,400 kilometres (2,700 miles). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

There now might be a definitive answer to a puzzle which has intrigued both scientists and the public for some time: What are those odd bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres? A new study suggests they are a type of salt, originating from a subsurface layer of briny water-ice. Another study points to the existence of ammonia-rich clays on Ceres.

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Haze detected above mystery bright spots on Ceres

The brightest of the bright spots on Ceres, in Occator crater. Haze detected above them may help scientists determine if they are made of ice, salts or something else. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The brightest of the bright spots on Ceres, in Occator crater. Haze detected above them may help scientists determine if they are made of ice, salts or something else. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The intriguing bright spots on dwarf planet/asteroid Ceres have been fascinating the public and scientists alike for the past few months, and now a new discovery might provide a valuable clue as to just what these spots are made of: the Dawn spacecraft has detected a periodic haze over the brightest spots in Occator crater.

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Image Gallery: new views of mystery bright spots on Ceres

The most well-known bright spots, now seen to be multiple small spots. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The most well-known bright spots, now seen to be multiple small spots. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Some new views of Ceres were released today from the Dawn spacecraft, which include the now-famous mystery bright spots, as well as some new spots not seen before. The most prominent “double spot” as previously viewed, can now be seen to be multiple spots of various sizes.

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Image Gallery: mystery bright spots on Ceres

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The bright spots on Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn spacecraft has almost reached the dwarf planet Ceres, and a lot more detail can be seen as it gets closer. The odd bright spots which have puzzled scientists for a long time now can also be seen more clearly for the first time. What was thought to be one spot in this crater is now obviously two close together. Are they exposed ice or some other material? Are they related to possible cryovolcanoes? Dawn was 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles) away when it took this image on February 18, 2015.

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