The saga of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft and the dwarf planet Ceres will be one for the history books: Craft meets planet. Craft observes unidentifiable bright spots, scientists go bananas. Craft gets closer to bright spots, voting public convinced they’re the result of alien witchcraft. In this latest installment, Ceres delivers the closest-ever images of the dwarf planet and its infamous bright spots. Armed with this new information, astronomers can finally conclude that… they still have no idea what the spots are.
“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles, said recently.
The newest images were taken from a distance of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) and has a resolution of 2,250 feet (700 meters) per pixel, the closest and highest resolution images to date. Last week, NASA opened the debate to the public, giving voters the options of volcano, geyser, ice, salt, rock or “other” as the explanation for the bright reflection. Currently, “other” is leading the way, presumably because it leaves wiggle room for aliens as a possible origin. Why intelligent alien life would choose a cold, rocky planet with no atmosphere is beyond anyone’s understanding.
The next milestone for Dawn will come on June 6, when it maneuvers its way to its closest orbit yet, a distance of 2,700 miles. It will hang out there until June 30, at which point it will begin to edge closer and closer to the dwarf planet and its mysterious bright spots. Ceres uses a unique and efficient ion propulsion system to move in and out of orbit. Before Ceres, Dawn explored the giant protoplanet Vesta, making it the first NASA spacecraft to have entered and exited the orbit of two celestial bodies.
As for the bright spots, it’s anyone’s guess.