No, it's probably not ice.
After months of investigating image captures of dwarf planet Ceres, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) believes the number of mysterious bright spots reflecting back from Ceres' surface are "a huge salt deposit" and not ice.
Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn spacecraft, addressed scientists and experts on Sept. 28 during the European Planetary Science Congress in France and said they are "pretty sure it's salt," although they are uncertain as to what particular salt it is.
The bright spots were previously speculated to be reflective ice, as Ceres is believed to harbor a subsurface ocean probably exposed and afterwards frozen by asteroid impact. They were also thought to be light rising from an underground alien space station.
The presence of salt in the mysterious bright spots, Russell argued, indicates activity in Ceres.
"[Salt] tells me that this is an active surface. Some comet or asteroid did not come in carrying salt; this is derived from the interior somehow," said Russell.
The biggest of the bright spots, the roughly six-mile wide crater called Occator, is described by NASA as the dwarf planet's "highlands area." Other bright spots, however, are also situated in lowland areas.
Russell considered the pyramid mountain previously observed on Ceres—showing bright streaks along the sides—to be "probably salt again," and added the peak possibly has a sibling mountain that Dawn has not caught yet.
The NASA scientist added that any liquid water inside the planet might possibly contain life—highlighted as one reason Dawn will not be landing on Ceres and potentially contaminating the local environment with Earth matter.
Orbiting the planet at a 915-mile altitude, Dawn has provided new topographic maps of Ceres that feature the Occator, the tall mountain, and over a dozen names for Ceres' terrain, as recently approved by the International Astronomical Union. Ysolo Mons, for instance, is the name for a 12-mile wide mountain near the planet's north pole.
Launched from Earth in September 2007, Dawn is the first mission toward a dwarf planet and the first to orbit two different targets, studying the protoplanet Vesta in 2011 and 2012 for 14 months. Later this year, Dawn will continue to capture scientific data and closer shots of Ceres' surface to shed light on questions surrounding the dwarf planet.