The mystery of the white spots on the dwarf planet Ceres

Picture of the dwarf planet Ceres taken by the Dawn space probe (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Picture of the dwarf planet Ceres taken by the Dawn space probe (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

NASA’s space probe Dawn continues its approach to the dwarf planet Ceres. This allows to send on Earth better and better photographs with greater details of its surface. The previous images were clear enough to make it possible to see some light-colored areas and in particular a really bright one, which had puzzled scientists. A photo taken on February 19 at a distance of about 46,000 km (about 29,000 miles) shows a second bright area close to the one already identified.

The presence of bright areas on Ceres is far from new. In 2005 images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope were published showing a spot much brighter than the rest of the dwarf planet’s surface. However, from the Earth’s orbit it’s impossible to have images detailed enough to be able to understand the origin of that brightness, which remained a mystery.

Today the Dawn space probe is taking pictures much more detailed than those that can be obtained by Hubble. Scientists can already examine the surface of Ceres, full of craters, but the white spot is still too small to be able to analyze it. On the other hand, in the same basin now another smaller white spot can be seen.

According to Chris Russell of the University of California, the principal investigator for the Dawn mission, the fact that the two white spots are close and in a basin could be explained by a volcanic-like origin. However, Russell added that they’ll need to have better resolution images in order to provide geological interpretations.

The fact that the possibility of volcanic-like phenomena on a dwarf planet as small as Ceres, which has a diameter of about 950 kilometers, is even considered is interesting. Now the Dawn spacecraft is about to reach Ceres’ orbit to spend 16 months examining its featuers and possible geological activity.

The analysis of the presence of water ice, another possible cause of the brightness of the white spots and also of other less bright areas on the surface of Ceres, is another important part of the Dawn mission. We can therefore expect that in the coming weeks a lot of new information and discoveries about this dwarf planet will start arriving.

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