Ceres Spots Back in Focus

TMC Archives 2015-05-25

The enigmatic cluster of bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, are back in focus this past week with the release of new high resolution imaging by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology taken by the Dawn spacecraft. As it stands, the origin and properties of these bright spots still remains a mystery, though this new photographic evidence will help in deciphering this puzzle.

This Ceres image is part of a sequence of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 16, 2015, from a distance of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers). NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The new sequence of navigational images taken on May 16, 2015 by Dawn has allowed for the team of scientists back home to better speculate that the luminosity of Ceres’ spots are indeed due to the reflection of sunlight from “highly reflective material.” The images were taken from an altitude of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) from Ceres and have a resolution of 2,250 feet (700 meters) per pixel.

“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots are due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” said Christopher Russell, the principal investigator for the Dawn mission, speaking on the highly reflective material on Ceres based on the new round of images shot this past week.

Dawn is the first spacecraft to have orbited two extraterrestrial targets. After its launch in 2007, Dawn rendezvoused with the second-most massive object of our solar systems asteroid belt, 4 Vesta, in Mid-2011. Dawn set course to Ceres shortly thereafter and began orbiting the dwarf planet on March 6 of this year. From Hubble-based observations, Ceres only had one bright spot, although as Dawn approached closer and closer, like a microscope focusing in to resolve a specimen, one spot became two, which became many during approach. As closer mapping orbits are made, on-board instruments and high resolution imaging will assist in determining the geological makeup of these spots and the properties of the dwarf planet as a whole.

A simulated view of Ceres and Dawn together. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Currently, Dawn has descended to an altitude of 4,200 miles (or 6,700 kilometers) since the recent photos were taken, and will continue to make steady modifications to this orbit using its on-board ion propulsion system. An upcoming planned mapping orbit is to be performed at 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) on June 6. Dawn will maintain this orbit until June 30, and continually make its way to lower and lower orbits.

In light of these new images, NASA has released a guessing game, allowing the public at home to better understand the Dawn mission and to see what people think these bright spots may be. The candidate choices provided by NASA’s JPL are cryovolcano (volcano), geyser, rock, ice, salt deposit or other. ‘Other’ currently holds the majority of votes, with 38%. The next runner up, ice, has 30% of the votes.

Could Ceres harbor a sub-surface ocean capable of sustaining life? Are these bright spots a sign of cyrovolcanic activity, ice, focused meteorite activity, salt deposits, or a combination of all of the above? As Dawn continues to approach Ceres, the mystery of these spots will continually unravel. Based on this information, new hypotheses will be generated regarding properties of Ceres that will aid in the design of future missions to this nearby world.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Anehii.

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