We’ve been so focused on Pluto we’ve completely ignored another dwarf planet closer to the sun, tucked deep inside the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter: Ceres. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft just spotted something spectacular about the planet!
Mysterious bright spots were seen sparkling on the planet as the Dawn mission approached the cratered, mega-asteroid. One particular crater became the focus of these spots, called Occator crater, where there’s a central cluster surrounded by a peppering of other bright spots. Since their discovery, these strange features have mystified planetary scientists and, although theories are abound nothing conclusive has come forward.
However, today according to Nature’s Alexandra Witze, Dawn mission scientists have revealed a brand new discovery which could likely explain what these bright spots are: the bright spots are producing a strange haze. Sounds like something out of science fiction? Have we discovered alien life after all?
“At noontime, if you look at a glancing angle, you can see what seems to be haze,” said Christopher Russell, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dawn principal investigator. “It comes back in a regular pattern.”
According to Russell, who was speaking at a NASA exploration meeting at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the haze covers about half of the crater and reaches as far as the rim.
So far, scientists have theorized that the bright spots could be concentrations of minerals or salts. Or they might be icy deposits; potentially evidence for cryovolcanism.
The spacecraft hasn’t yet been able to properly analyze the spots, but the discovery of haze above a crater filled with bright dots could indicate something is outgassing into space — possibly sublimating water ice.
In 2014, the now-defunct Herschel infrared space telescope uncovered “unequivocal” evidence of water vapor at Ceres. However, since that discovery (and with the arrival of Dawn), the European observatory’s detection has not been confirmed. But with the discovery of “haze” above Occator crater, perhaps we may be hot on the trail as to the nature of these mysterious bright patches and the potential source of this elusive water vapor.