Highest-Resolution Views Yet Reveal Ceres' Mysterious Bright Spots, Seemingly Comprised of Multiple ‘Icy Spots’

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), in its RC3 mapping orbit. The brightest spots within a crater in the northern hemisphere are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots.   The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), in its RC3 mapping orbit. The brightest spots within a crater in the northern hemisphere are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots. The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
See below up-close view of bright spots processed to enhance detail

The highest-resolution images yet obtained of Ceres’ alien terrain by NASA’s recently arrived Dawn orbiter spacecraft reveal that the mysterious pair of eye-like bright spots are actually comprised of a multitude of spots that may be “icy,” the science team tells AmericaSpace.

Spectral measurements from NASA’s just-released imagery of the closest-yet views of dwarf planet Ceres show that the most intriguing bright spots are “highly reflective material” and exhibit “spectrum resembling that expected for ice,” Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles, told AmericaSpace.

“I know of nothing exactly like these spots anywhere,” Russell elaborated. “We are excited about these scientific surprises!”

The latest sequence of images of Ceres’ dauntingly mysterious bright spots show them to seemingly be sheets of many spots of water ice, and not just single huge patches. The duo of ice spots are located smack dab inside the middle of a 57-mile-wide (92 km) crater, situated in Ceres’ northern hemisphere.

This animation shows a sequence of images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), in its RC3 mapping orbit. The brightest spots within a crater in the northern hemisphere are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots.   The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

This animation shows a sequence of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), in its RC3 mapping orbit. The brightest spots within a crater in the northern hemisphere are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots. The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Altogether, Ceres features a remarkable collection of perhaps 10 or more bright spots, with the brightest ones being the pair inside the crater.

The bright spots had not yet been resolved in prior images taken by the framing camera at further distances, during the Ceres approach and capture into orbit that took place March 6.

The bright patches of what appear for now to be ice are now much better resolved compared to all prior imagery captured at farther distances, and were taken by the Dawn spacecraft May 3 and 4, 2015.

The images were taken from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) while the probe was in its first mapping orbit known as RC3, or the rotation characterization 3 mapping orbit.

The image resolution at RC3 is 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel.

AmericaSpace asked the PI, “What’s the best current hypothesis on the nature of the bright spots based on the data gathered so far?”

“The spectrum resembles that expected for ice. The simplest explanation is that they are ice,” Russell stated. “I expect that there will be more surprises.”

To date, Dawn has gathered several thousand images and millions of spectral measurements for the science team to analyze and scrutinize in making conclusions and constructing the science plan of action.

“So far we obtained about 2,500 pictures and about two million spectra,” Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s mission director and chief engineer, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., told AmericaSpace.

“RC3 executed very well indeed.”

This up close, cropped view of Ceres pair of bright spots has been processed to unveil further details.  The  image was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), in its RC3 mapping orbit. The bright spots are within a crater in the northern hemisphere and are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.  Additional Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

This up close, cropped view of Ceres pair of bright spots has been processed to unveil further details. The image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), in its RC3 mapping orbit. The bright spots are within a crater in the northern hemisphere and are revealed to be composed of many smaller spots. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Additional Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Given their extreme brightness, are the bright spots more reflective then expected for ice?

“The spots look to be no more reflective than we expect for ice,” Russell replied.

“But it is always possible at some level that a mechanism that we believe is improbable is responsible. The increasing resolution as we descend will be helpful in the final analysis.”

How do these two compare to the other bright areas?

“There are other small bright spots on the surface. But none as numerous in one area than those at 240 deg East in our preliminary coordinate system.”

Could they still possibly be icy cryovolcanoes?

“We don’t understand how the ice—if that is what it is—was produced. Except that it had to freeze at sometime. So, no mechanism is ‘ruled out’.”

Roughly how many individual spots are you seeing in each of the two areas?

“I think we should be careful in giving a count because the larger spots may break into many smaller ones when we get higher resolution,” Russell explained.

Do they still remain unlike anything seen before, or are there some types of analogs now that the team has had more to reflect?

“I know of nothing exactly like these spots anywhere. But there are some bright spots on some moons.”

Now that Dawn is spiraling down in altitude ever closer toward Ceres’ surface, the best results are yet to come over the course of the next year or more while Dawn actively investigates Ceres until at least June 2016—if all goes well.

This map-projected view of Ceres was created from images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft during its initial approach to the dwarf planet, prior to being captured into orbit in March 2015. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

This map-projected view of Ceres was created from images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft during its initial approach to the dwarf planet, prior to being captured into orbit in March 2015.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn just completed its first mapping orbit at RC3, composed of one 15-day full circle around Ceres while making new observations with its scientific instruments.

On May 9, the spacecraft powered on its ion engine to begin the month-long descent toward its second mapping orbit, known as the survey orbit, which it will enter June 6, according to NASA.

During the survey orbit phase, Dawn will circle Ceres about every three days at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers)—three times closer than the RC3.

“During this phase, Dawn will comprehensively map the surface to begin unraveling Ceres’ geologic history and assess whether the dwarf planet is active,” say NASA officials.

As it spirals down, Dawn will pause twice to take images of Ceres.

“Our opnavs [imaging] during the spiral to survey start on May 16 and May 22,” Rayman told me.

And there is a big change coming in the look of the images. After Dawn reaches the survey orbit there won’t be any more images of the whole globe of Ceres because it will more than fill the camera view.

“From now on, Ceres will be larger than the camera field of view. As at Vesta, we will build up maps from higher resolution views of smaller areas,” Rayman explained.

Dawn is an international science mission run by NASA and equipped with a trio of science instruments from the U.S., Germany, and Italy. The framing camera was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), provided by Italy, is an imaging spectrometer that examines Ceres in visible and infrared light.

These images, from Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), highlight two regions on Ceres containing bright spots. The top images show a region scientists have labeled "1" and the bottom images show the region labeled "5."  Region 5 contains the brightest spots on Ceres.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

These images, from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), highlight two regions on Ceres containing bright spots. The top images show a region scientists have labeled “1” and the bottom images show the region labeled “5.” Region 5 contains the brightest spots on Ceres. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

Dawn made history in March when it simultaneously became the first probe from Earth to reach Ceres as well as the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies.

It had previously visited Vesta. After achieving orbit in July 2011, Dawn became the first spacecraft from Earth to orbit a body in the main Asteroid Belt, located between Mars and Jupiter.

In sharp contrast to rocky Vesta, Ceres is an icy world.

Scientists believe that Ceres may harbor an ocean of subsurface liquid water as large in volume as the oceans of Earth, below a thick icy mantle, despite its small size—and thus could be a potential abode for life. Overall, Ceres is estimated to be about 25 percent water by mass.

Dawn’s images obtained thus far reveal Ceres to be a pockmarked world with craters of many sizes.

Ceres is a huge and mysterious alien world the size of Texas. It measures approximately 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter and is nearly round.

Russell has this new message for AmericaSpace readers:

“We really appreciate their interest in our mission and hope they are as excited as we have been about these scientific surprises. Since we are only just beginning our investigation, I expect that there will be more surprises. So please stick with us!”

Dawn was launched Sept, 27, 2007, by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex-17B (SLC-17B) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Stay tuned here for continuing updates on Dawns’ orbital capture and science mission at protoplanet Ceres!

Ken Kremer

 

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2 Brightest spots on Ceres.  This image was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin.   Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

2 Brightest spots on Ceres. This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres Awaits Dawn with 2 unique bright spots inside crater.  Ceres rotates in this sped-up movie comprised of images taken by NASA's Dawn mission during its approach to the dwarf planet. The images were taken on Feb. 19, 2015, from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Dawn observed Ceres for a full rotation of the dwarf planet, which lasts about nine hours. The images have a resolution of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) per pixel.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres Awaits Dawn with 2 unique bright spots inside crater. Ceres rotates in this sped-up movie comprised of images taken by NASA’s Dawn mission during its approach to the dwarf planet. The images were taken on Feb. 19, 2015, from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Dawn observed Ceres for a full rotation of the dwarf planet, which lasts about nine hours. The images have a resolution of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

17 comments to Highest-Resolution Views Yet Reveal Ceres’ Mysterious Bright Spots, Seemingly Comprised of Multiple ‘Icy Spots’

  • Gary Church

    We should be landing on it right now with astronauts. The space age ended in 1972 and we have been stranded in Low Earth Orbit for over 40 years. A far more interesting place to go than Mars.

  • And

    What a joke! You look out into the universe millions of light years away but you supposedly cannot zoom in on Ceres? Problem is, the world buys this.

    Conspiracy folks are not welcome to spread FUD on AmericaSpace.com.

    • Graham

      Little difference. They look out million (and billions) of light years mainly with hubble and enormous land based telescopes. Dawn is the size of a small car. It’s packed with scientific instruments and there’s simply not enough room for a giant camera. It’s still 12000 km from the surface. This resolution is pretty good for a small camera at that distance launched in 2007. It will get closer as the months progress, just be patient.

    • Gary Church

      No UFO/conspiracy idiot comments please.

    • Sebastiaan

      Do you even know anything about technology?

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      @And: AmericaSpace is a site dedicated to reality, history and facts on its reporting of everything space-related. Comments that promote a conspiracy theory mindset and a denial of reality and reason are simply not welcome here. There are plenty of sites on the internet that promote this kind of stuff, but AmericaSpace isn’t one of them.

      Respectfully,

      Leonidas Papadopoulos
      AmericaSpace Staff

      • Gary Church

        https://archive.org/stream/mannedsubmersibl00busb#page/26/mode/2up

        This book, published in 1976, is the bible for manned submersibles and is fascinating. These type of craft are what we will hopefully in the next half century or so be exploring the subsurface oceans of icy bodies like Ceres, Ganymede, Europa, Enceladus, Titan and many others. Callisto does not have the characteristics that make an ocean likely but it is still possible and being outside the radiation belts of Jupiter- it is an excellent destination. The four Uranian moons and Triton and even, amazingly, Pluto and Charon may possibly have some unique interaction that makes oceans possible. Nobody guessed this was possible till recently and it is becoming impossible to ignore that the place to explore is NOT MARS.

    • “What a joke!”

      Unfortunately, the joke is on you and is a reflection of the substandard education in science and math you received while you were in school. There is no contradiction in being able to see objects millions of light years away while at the same time not being able to get a good view of a nearby asteroid any more than there is any sort of contradiction in someone being able to view a distant mountain while at the some time being unable to clearly see a grain of sand at ones feet. It is all about the relative sizes and distances of objects and your lack of understanding is not evidence of some sort of conspiracy, it is evidence you have a lot to learn.

  • Rob

    Can they use hubble to zoom in?

    • The Hubble Space Telescope has already observed Ceres but, because this asteroid was being viewed from a distance of hundreds of millions of miles, even Hubble was unable to see features smaller than several tens of miles across. Here is a link to the best Hubble images of the bright spots:

      http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/pr2005027a

      Dawn will get much better images even though it has a less capable camera than Hubble because Dawn will eventually be only hundreds of miles away instead of hundreds of millions of miles away. This is why Dawn was sent to Ceres to begin with – to get a closer look at Ceres than would ever be practical from Earth.

  • […] as the year of the dwarf planets. With NASA’s ongoing Dawn mission already returning spectacular close-up images from Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the family of ‘minor’ planetary bodies […]

  • Tracy the Troll

    I still see a lot of uniformity in these smaller circles…doesn’t anyone else?

    • Speaking as someone with a third of a century of digital image processing experience for scientific applications, I’d be REALLY careful about reading too much into the appearance of these bright spots in these publicly released images. The contrast of these images has been manipulated to give the overall image the best possible appearance. Such a manipulation would not necessarily provide the best representation of any structure present inside the bright spots assuming any exists and the original data were not saturated. While one could obtain the calibrated image files and start manipulating the original data, I would recommend just sitting tight and wait for better images to come in after Dawn settles into successively lower orbits. I am sure the bright spots are high on the list of targets of interest for the Dawn science team.

    • Gary Church

      It is ice. Not alien cities. Wanna bet some money on it? I didn’t think so.

      No UFO nut comments please.

  • […] breath-taking close-up images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and NASA’s Dawn mission providing stunning views of dwarf planet Ceres in the vast expanses of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. More than 5 billion km further […]

  • […] provide closer images of these bright spots. Spots of various sizes and brightness have been seen all over Ceres, but the brightest ones in Occator crater (known collectively as Spot 5) are the ones that first […]

  • […] provide closer images of these bright spots. Spots of various sizes and brightness have been seen all over Ceres, but the brightest ones in Occator crater (known collectively as Spot 5) are the ones that first […]