Dwarf planet Ceres offers big surprises for scientists

July 5, 2015 by Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
Ceres
Credit: NASA

The closer we get to Ceres, the more perplexing the dwarf planet grows. NASA's Dawn spacecraft has found several more bright spots as well as a pyramid-like peak jutting out of the frigid world's surface.

The discovery is painting an increasingly complex portrait of one of the biggest "fossils" from the early solar system.

"I expected to be surprised because we knew so little about Ceres," Christopher Russell, Dawn's principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an email. "I never expected bright spots and a pyramid to be the surprises."

Ceres is one of five dwarf planets in the solar system and the largest member of the asteroid belt, the vast ring of rocky debris that stretches between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Asteroids are the building blocks of planets that never came to be, and scientists hoped that by studying two of the largest protoplanets in the belt - first the lumpy asteroid Vesta, and now the dwarf planet Ceres - the Dawn mission could learn more about the early development of our .

By the time the spacecraft arrived at Ceres in March, speculation had already grown about the nature of the dwarf planet's surface. Many researchers had suspected that Ceres, which seemed to be rich in water ice, would have fairly smooth, young terrain.

Instead, as the spacecraft grew ever closer in the home stretch of its 7{-year journey, it began sending back images of a much rougher, cratered surface than expected. Even stranger: a mysterious bright spot (previously observed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope) that seemed to shine like a beacon from the surface.

That bright spot resolved into two bright spots as the spacecraft got closer, and new images show that the dimmer companion is actually not one, but at least eight smaller spots.

What are those shiny areas? It's still unclear, Russell said. It's possible they are salt or , though scientists can't say for sure.

"We should get the answer when we pass over the bright spot again," Russell said. "We do see the contour of the ground, and it seems that it is not a hill but possibly a dip in the surface that is bright, but we need to complete the survey orbits in order to accurately obtain the topography of the area."

For the moment, even knowing that the dimmer of the two bright spots is actually multiple spots gives researchers valuable information, he said.

"This means that the process that made the big bright spot can work on a smaller scale," he said. "The distribution of these bright spots is something we must seriously consider in solving this puzzle. The solution should tell us much about the unseen subsurface of Ceres."

Dawn has discovered another surprising feature on the surface: a roughly 3-mile-high mountain that juts out of the ground alone.

"We do not know yet what made this peak on Ceres, let alone made it the observed shape," Russell said. "This is another total surprise to the team. However, there are processes on Earth that can grow mounds out of groundwater in Arctic terrains on Earth. But these are much smaller structures.

"We see only one of these on Ceres.... Its uniqueness makes our understanding more difficult," he added.

The pyramid-like mountain isn't associated with any bright spots, but bright streaks run top to bottom on some of the slopes, he said.

"It is possible that the bright material is the same as the bright material causing the bright spots," he added. "We will need better resolution to determine this."

Dawn has been circling Ceres in an orbit about 2,700 miles above the surface; in August it will dip down to an altitude of 900 miles, getting an even clearer view of the mysterious .

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18 comments

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Mastoras
1 / 5 (1) Jul 06, 2015
Nothing similar (white) appears anywhere else on Ceres. This leads me to think that the cause of these white spots might have come from outside the dwarf planet.

Also, the one of the two spots seems to be in the center of a crater. Again, this would have been greatly consistent with something from outside, that hit Ceres and created the crater.

So... I am proposing that a meteorite hit Ceres, and created the crater. The one white spot we see at the center of the crater is the remnant of it. Some fragments hit sideways of the main body, creating what appeared as the second spot and now is resolved to a group of white spots.

I'm trying to find a forum to say this for..., well, for many weeks!
docile
Jul 06, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
bearly
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 06, 2015
"the spacecraft arrived at Ceres in March" and it is now JUly and we still do not have a clear photo? NASA is not exactly forthcoming with what they are finding.
NIPSZX
not rated yet Jul 06, 2015
I guess we will wait until August... Hopefully by September we will come to a clear and close conclusion.
charles_mccuddin
not rated yet Jul 06, 2015
Mastorus I believe you are right. I have been saying the same thing for over a month now. I believe anyone must take into account the fact you mention - that the bright spot(s) are largely unique among all the other craters visible. Assuming that the substratum is not unique in only that one spot, it would make sense to assume that a faily unique body that produced the crater must have been composed of a substance (perhaps high metallic concentrate (nickel) that melted on impact. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain why this phenomenon is not present in numerous locations around Ceres. Perhaps we will eventually know. Mick
Tuxford
1 / 5 (7) Jul 07, 2015
"the spacecraft arrived at Ceres in March" and it is now JUly and we still do not have a clear photo? NASA is not exactly forthcoming with what they are finding.


NASA is first an arm of the DOD. And similar to the classification of artifacts found on the moon, photos must be first scrubbed before release. (Evidence from EVA 2 of Apollo 17 remains unreleased.) Any future photos may show less and less detail if these bright spots are indeed self-illuminating. Or more likely, the spacecraft will simply be lost soon.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (6) Jul 08, 2015
I guess we will wait until August... Hopefully by September we will come to a clear and close conclusion.


Good luck on that hope. I have been waiting since the Apollo 17 for NASA to come clean. I witnessed the entire feed live of the 2nd EVA at NASA, while the rest of the world got only updates between commercials. It was me (as an interested teen who drove there after high school), and just a few bored reporters drinking coffee in that NASA auditorium that rainy night in Houston. I know NASA is just a PR agency, placating science and the public. We will not get much more from CERES. Whatever we get, be skeptical.
Moebius
5 / 5 (3) Jul 08, 2015
Without knowing the light level that picture was taken at, the brightness of the spots is relative. If the pic was taken in low light or long exposure for instance to brighten the image of Ceres the spots will also be that much brighter in the pic. The only thing these pics show is the spots are relatively much brighter, not necessarily inherently bright unless that pic is really normal visible light level.
bschott
1 / 5 (1) Jul 13, 2015
Why is this the last article about Ceres...nothing has happened in 8 days?
Tuxford
1 / 5 (4) Jul 13, 2015
Why is this the last article about Ceres...nothing has happened in 8 days?


Indeed. Possibly, like the moon, Ceres is inhabited. If so, we will get little more news. What we do get will be doctored. Be skeptical. Ceres may be cold, but likely solar radiation levels are much reduced, making operations there easier for the inhabitants?

jonesdave
5 / 5 (3) Jul 13, 2015
Why is this the last article about Ceres...nothing has happened in 8 days?


Indeed. Possibly, like the moon, Ceres is inhabited. If so, we will get little more news. What we do get will be doctored. Be skeptical. Ceres may be cold, but likely solar radiation levels are much reduced, making operations there easier for the inhabitants?



Lol.
barakn
4 / 5 (4) Jul 14, 2015
"the spacecraft arrived at Ceres in March" and it is now JUly and we still do not have a clear photo? NASA is not exactly forthcoming with what they are finding.
Dawn entered a mapping orbit of 2700 km on June 3, making slow 3.1-day orbits of Ceres. Since it was at a constant altitude, it couldn't have given you any higher-resolution images than the ones that were already released. It was scheduled to move to a lower orbit in early July but just when it started on June 30 it experienced an anomaly that forced it into safe mode, shutting down all operations including science projects. Managers decided to leave it in the higher orbit until they discover the source of the anomaly. But even when it does resume its descent, it will do so slowly because it is using slow-but-efficient ion thrusters. There's no conspiracy here, folks, it's just scientists and engineers being very careful not to damage or lose control of a half billion dollar spacecraft.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2015
The closer look that we get, the smaller these lights appear. Compare with this earlier picture from March.

http://phys.org/n...tml#nRlv

From the latest image, seems that the brightest spot is about 10 km across. Seems about right for a small city? And with gravity only 3% G, a large dome might be constructed relatively easily if desired covering the entire area? Just say'n....
docile
Jul 17, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (3) Jul 18, 2015
Well, there are apparently many inexplicable features here:

http://www.digita...e/430731

As LaViolette points out, the spots remain illuminated as they rotate toward the terminator. And the spots have differing thermal signatures in infrared, as if from a narrow spectrum source.

And now that we have gotten more close with the spacecraft, it has suddenly malfunctioned. So I have to concur with LaViolette's March prediction, that we likely have been shown the last unfiltered data from Dawn on this subject. Revealing a city on Ceres is just too much for the NASA charter, and not in the interest of National Security.

Interesting though that those in control deep within the DoD did not know about this in advance. Be happy relativists!
Tuxford
1 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2015
NASA still silent? And no new news stories so far this month? Apparently, Hubble even imaged the lights back in 2004. Here is a nice history of the mission, including a shot of the triangular object imaged on the surface. Could the straight crater walls be from mining operations? Existing crater walls likely a better place to mine than digging another hole.

https://www.youtu...UUXzDAlQ
Tuxford
1 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2015
Taking the scenario a step further: Note that the bigger city is rather precisely centrally located within an undisturbed round crater (see the video). Many other large craters without lights show hexagonal features, where mining operations likely took place. Like us, the inhabitants simply prefer to keep the ugly mines away from their cities.

So if one allows for the possibility of an alien city when analyzing the evidence, then perhaps conventional explanations fall short. But if one limits the potential explanations to fit within a long-held comfortable conventional belief system, then the proper explanation may be missed and instead confusion will ensue.

Such is the case of Huge Bang Fantasy, where physicists do not permit the idea of the creation of matter within our universe except at the fabled beginning. And despite the ample evidence of matter forming within the cores of galaxies, and being dispersed therefrom to form stars, astronomers remain in merger mania.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (2) Jul 22, 2015
Now hints of a haze forming within the glowing crater. Evaporation or air pollution?

http://www.nature...-1.18032

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