As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approaches Ceres (a protoplanet within the main asteroid belt), astronomers are being treated to the highest resolution images of the the dwarf planet ever produced. The latest images, taken Feb. 12 from 52,000 miles out, reveal unprecedented detail. They also reveal something puzzling: What are those unusually bright spots?
“As we slowly approach the stage, our eyes transfixed on Ceres and her planetary dance, we find she has beguiled us but left us none the wiser,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at UCLA. “We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled.”
The Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to slide into orbit around Ceres March 6, at which point scientists will be able to get an even clearer picture of the protoplanet. They’re interested in the nature and physical composition of it, of course, but they’re also very interested in what those bright spots might be. Ice? Alien disco parties? No one knows, at this point.
This is not Dawn’s first trip to an asteroid belt protoplanet. For 14 months between 2011 and 2012 it explored Vesta, a humongous asteroid within the belt. Dawn was able to capture exceptionally crisp images, giving astronomers some of the best-ever detailed views of an asteroid’s surface.
Both Ceres and Vesta reside within the main asteroid belt that lies roughly between Mars and Jupiter. While Ceres and Vesta are very different celestial bodies, they both formed within the first few million years of solar system evolution. NASA hopes that by exploring Vesta and Ceres, they’ll develop a better understanding of how the solar system formed as a whole.