New NASA Video Unravels Mysterious Spots in Ceres

Dawn Closer To Ceres

NASA recently released a new video of Ceres. This gives a new perspective on the dwarf planet’s strange surface. Except that Ceres’ differences are unmistakable from any other solar system body.

Reasons for new information on Ceres comes from flybys by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Its corkscrew descent towards Ceres provides all detailed highlights involved. Pictures from Dawn have been getting bigger and better, while providing more mysteries and questions.

Looming White Spots Ominous

Initially seen because of brightness, several spots were located in only one “60-mile-wide” Ceres crater. Now called Occator. which only recently received an official name. Questions on the bright spots’ origin arose since they were first seen as Dawn approached Ceres. But even NASA now admits the spots appear to be subliming gas to create a mini-atmosphere within the crater. Researchers say the spots are not consistent with the properties of known existent water-ice.

“The science team is continuing to evaluate the data and discuss theories about these bright spots at Occator,” Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell, UCLA, said. “We are now comparing the spots with the reflective properties of salt, but we are still puzzled by their source. We look forward to new, higher-resolution data from the mission’s next orbital phase.”

The Descent To Ceres

The $466 million Dawn launched in 2007 to study Ceres and Vesta, the two largest asteroid belt objects. Dawn orbited Vesta from 2011-2012, and it then orbited the 584-mile Ceres since March. Dawn is currently spiraling down to its third descending orbit around Ceres, which is only 900 miles high. Dawn reached that orbit, and resumed observations of Ceres. Dawn’s previous orbit was at 2,700 miles.

The new Ceres video tour, directly from Dawn, attempted to unravel the mysterious bright spots in Ceres’ 2-mile-deep Occator crater. Now closer to Ceres than ever before, Dawn strangely spotted a 4-mile-high mountain, scientists call “The Pyramid.” “This mountain is among the tallest features we’ve seen on Ceres to date,” Paul Schenk, geologist, Lunar and Planetary Institute, said: “It’s unusual that it’s not associated with a crater. Why is it sitting in the middle of nowhere? We don’t know yet, but we may find out with closer observations.”

Strangely, the “Pyramid” is located exactly on the southernmost tip of Ceres.

Named Ceres’ Craters

  1. Occator: The crater with Ceres’ mysterious bright spots is 60 miles across and 2 miles deep. New research has revealed the bright spots of Occator release gas to the surface, creating a localized atmosphere within the crater.
  2. Haulani: Known as “Spot 1,” Haulani is a small, bright crater 20 miles across. and is colder than the surrounding area.
  3. Urvara: Far south of Occator, Urvara is 100 miles across, and 3 miles deep. Urvara has a 2-mile-high pointy peak rising out of the center.
  4. [4,5] Dantu; Ezinu: Craters are around 75 miles across, and 3 miles deep.
  5. [6,7] Kerwan; Yalode: Each are over twice as big as Dantu or Ezinu.

“The impact craters Dantu and Ezinu are extremely deep, while the much larger impact basins Kerwan and Yalode exhibit much shallower depth, indicating increasing ice mobility with crater size and age,” per Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn team member, German Aerospace Center, Berlin.

Ceres Southern Pyramid Mountain
A roughly pyramidshaped mountain protrudes from a relatively smooth area of Ceres in this image taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on June 14. The images are being beamed back to Earth by the Dawn spacecraft, which placed itself in an orbit around Ceres earlier this year. The craft is currently 2,700 miles away from the dwarf planet – which means that capturing images of its surface is a bit like taking a photograph of San Francisco from New York City.

Ceres More Of A Planet Than Asteroid

The new Ceres’ maps are being discussed at the European Planetary Science Conference (EPSC) . At EPSC, Dawn team members have also made a puzzling observation. Three bursts of energetic electrons from Ceres were produced from interactions between Ceres, and solar radiation. This was from NASA officials, who really had no idea what really transpired.”This is a very unexpected observation for which we are now testing hypotheses,” Dawn investigator Chris Russell, University of California, said. “Ceres continues to amaze, yet puzzle us as we examine our multitude of images, spectra and now energetic particle bursts.”

But with Ceres, something different is occurring on a totally different scale. These bright spots don’t fit into the cratering pattern, only existing in one crater. Not only that, but the ‘Pyramid’ is located on the very bottom of the planet. And it’s right next to another crater seven miles deep.

Planetary scientists have a new mystery to investigate: Ceres, a dwarf planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, appears to have significantly fewer craters than scientists expected. But the count has come up short, said Simone Marchi, Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Images of Ceres’ surface taken by Dawn has provided scientists with a crater count. It is only one-tenth predicted by models.

Answers Wanted

  1. What causes the unusual bright light given off from the spots in Occator?
  2. Why are those bright spots limited to Occator, and why do only seven exist?
  3. Why is the tallest feature on Ceres a 4-mile high mountain having glowing strips only on one side?
  4. Why is that mountain at exactly “zero” degrees on the southernmost tip of Ceres?
  5. Why is Ceres almost totally round, the largest asteroid in the belt, and has 90% fewer craters than any other asteroid?
  6. What exactly are these “energetic particle bursts,” and why are they interacting with the solar radiation (which is very low all the way out to the asteroid belt?)
  7. What can a “mini-atmosphere” actually do, or provide within a crater?

These, and other questions, are paramount. Inquiring minds need to know. It seems the chance of having terrestrial life at some time on Ceres may have risen to 41.3%.

Kevin Roeten
A former Chemical Engineer, Kevin Roeten enjoys riding the third rail of journalism: politics and religion. He is a Guest Columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, and the Independent (Ohio), writes for numerous blogs, is an amateur astronomer, and delves into scientific topics.