NASA releases new maps of Ceres; bright spots mystery solved?

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft team released new maps of dwarf planet Ceres that was beamed back to earth recently. The space agency thinks that it may have solved the mystery of the bright spots reflecting back from the surface of the largest object in the asteroid belt.ceres-map

During the European Planetary Science Conference in France, researchers announced that Ceres continued to amaze them as they continue to study a trove of images sent by the spacecraft in the recent months. Referring to the mysterious bright spots, Dawn’s principal investigator Chris Russell said that they believe this is a huge salt deposit. Russell added that they don’t know it’s not ice and we’re pretty sure its salt, but we don’t know what salt at the present time.

Many believed that the spots were reflective ice as the dwarf planet is believed to bear a subsurface ocean that could have been exposed by an asteroid impact. Russell explained that the presence of salts in Ceres indicated that the planet is more active and they are derived from the interior somehow, rather than being carried by an asteroid. However, he added that NASA does not have a clear understanding of how salt gets onto the surface, which seems to be entirely dry.

The map also shows Occator crater that harbors two bright spots made of highly reflective material and a 4-mile-tall mountain. Though scientists are investigating the reason behind its extra brightness, they believe that they also may be salt deposits. Russell said that the possibility of liquid water inside Ceres might be able to sustain life, but there will be no attempt to land on the planet to avoid contamination. Dawn spacecraft is currently mapping the planet from a 915-mile high distance, and it would need to complete six rotations to map the entire surface. Each complete rotation would take 11 days.

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