Bright Spots on Ceres Return to View

animated sequence of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows northern terrain on the sunlit side of dwarf planet Ceres.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

animated sequence of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows northern terrain on the sunlit side of dwarf planet Ceres.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

As NASA’s Dawn orbiter approached the Ceres in late February, it released tantalizing images of a pair of bright spots on the floor of a big crater of the dwarf planet. But after the craft began orbiting Ceres on March 6, 2015, the newsfeed went silent. Conspiracy theories started brewing, naturally, about how the government was keeping secret the discovery of (fill in the blank) on Ceres. It turns out the spacecraft was just settling in and was mostly over the dark side of the dwarf planet. Now NASA has released two new images of Ceres, including the still mysterious bright spots, taken from Dawn on April 14 and 15 from 14,000 miles above Ceres’ north pole.

The above animation, near the end, show the brightest spot and its companion clearly standing out against their darker heavily cratered surroundings.

The composition of the bright patches are still unknown, but Dawn is just starting its main science mission. Starting on April 23, 2015, Dawn will spend about three weeks in a near-circular orbit around Ceres and observe the planet from 8,400 miles above the surface. On May 9, Dawn will descend to lower orbits to get a better view and provide higher-resolution observations.

One of the many objectives of the Dawn Mission will be to compare Ceres to giant asteroid Vesta, which Dawn studied from 2011-2012, to gain insights about the formation of our solar system. Both Vesta and Ceres, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, were likely on their way to becoming major planets before their development was interrupted.