Scientists getting their first ever close-up look at the dwarf planet Ceres say they’re puzzled by bright spots that have been revealed on its surface.
The images come from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is using a slow-but-sure ion drive to edge into orbit around the planetoid, and should reach position by 6th March.
The reflective patches will give science fiction conspiracy theorists plenty to talk about, as they resemble bright city lights on an alien planet.
In reality there’s a good chance that they are areas of water ice, perhaps formed by volcanic activity on this 950 kilometer diameter planetoid, the largest single lump in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.
The science team behind Dawn weren’t expecting to have this kind of conundrum on their hands when they arrived at Ceres.
“This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.
“This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dawn will spend the next 16 months orbiting Ceres and sending back science data and images of the surface.
The spacecraft has already visited Ceres’ smaller cousin, the giant asteroid Vesta- at 525 kilometres, it doesn’t quite warrant the dwarf planet label – and gave scientists a bonanza of 30,000 images of the planet.