White spots on Ceres have generated discussion and controversy among professional scientists and the general public alike. Now, NASA is reporting there are a cluster of the features on the dwarf planet, joining the two known bright areas.
The latest image, taken by the Dawn Spacecraft on June 6, shows the two large bright spots surrounded by several smaller bright white dots.
The Dawn spacecraft launched in 2007 on a mission to explore two of the three known protoplanets of the solar system, the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. When it arrived at Ceres, Dawn became the first spacecraft to ever explore a dwarf planet. The newest image, recording the area in unprecedented detail, was recorded as the robotic observatory orbited 2,700 miles above the dwarf planet. The image is among the first returned from the second mapping orbit of the Ceres segment of the mission.
The largest bright spot in the photographs measures roughly 55 miles from one side to the other. Program managers and other researchers at NASA are perplexed trying to explain the processes that could form the highly-reflective regions.
"The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we've seen before in the solar system. The science team is working to understand their source. Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt," said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission at the University of California, Los Angeles.
NASA is asking the public for their opinions on the nature of the strange spots on Ceres. People participating in the survey are asked to choose between volcanoes, geysers, rock, ice, salt or "other." As of June 11, 40 percent of respondents believed the unusual features are caused by something other than the suggested materials in the survey. Of the other choices, ice is the in the lead with three of every 10 votes. Rock is the least popular explanation, selected by just six percent of the poll's participants.
Some online sources are claiming the bright spots on the dwarf planet are hanger doors for UFOs or navigational lights for extraterrestrials visiting the Solar System. However, NASA scientists dismiss such notions, saying the features are a natural phenomenon, although similar features have not been seen on any other body explored by the human race.
Dawn will direct into a lower orbit at the end of June, traveling to just 900 miles over the surface of Ceres, an altitude the spacecraft will reach early in August 2015.