NASA is about to solve a major mystery about dwarf planet Ceres


dawn ceres


Back in January astronomers got one of their first close-up glimpses of dwarf planet Ceres, and they were baffled.

The tiny planet is the largest chunk of rock in the asteroid belt that hangs between Mars and Jupiter, and those close-up images, captured by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, revealed two huge, and hugely mysterious, bright spots on the surface.

The problem is that no one knows what in the world they are - and the more we observe and photograph them, the more complicated and confusing they get.

And people have some crazy theories about what they might be.

Maybe they're some kind of hybrid water volcano:


We've even seen some crazy ideas that the spots are actually electricity:

Or maybe they're just good old fashioned aliens:

NASA officials admit they have no idea what the spots are. Guesses have ranged from volcanoes to ice plumes to salt deposits. In the meantime NASA put together a poll where you can vote on what you think the weird bright spots are.

Soon, though, Dawn will get some real answers.

After eight years, Dawn has settled into orbit around Ceres and has finally started collecting scientific data as of April 24. Soon, even closer photos and surface analysis using a spectrometer and gamma ray detector will hopefully reveal what the weird bright spots are.


ceres spots


The strange bright spots on Ceres.

Last year astronomers at the European Space Agency peered at Ceres with the Herschel telescope and determined that the planet is actually surrounded by a thin layer of water vapor. That means that Ceres may hold ice water beneath its surface, and lends some support to the idea that those weird bright spots are actually light reflecting off ice plumes.

So even though Ceres hangs out in the asteroid belt, the presence of water vapor makes it seem less like an asteroid and more like the icy moons of the outer planets - just without the planet.

Many scientists think those icy moons have the potential to host alien life, so scientists are eager to get a closer look at Ceres.



This artist's impression shows Ceres's place in our solar system.

Dawn is equipped with detectors designed to measure the composition of Ceres, and it will reveal once and for all if the planet is harboring any water.

Scientists will also use instruments on Dawn to reconstruct a map of Ceres's gravity field. The gravity map will reveal the shape and density of the planet's core.

Scientists hope that all the data will tell us more about Ceres's violent past tumbling through the asteroid belt, and provide some insight into how our solar system formed, and may even guide our search for life off of Earth.

But really we just want to know what those bright dots are.

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