Ceres’ White Spots Multiply in Latest Dawn Photos

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

We don’t know exactly what those mysterious white spots on Ceres are yet, but we’re getting closer to an explanation. Literally. The latest images from the Dawn spacecraft taken a mere 8,400 miles from the dwarf planet Ceres reveal that the pair of  spots are comprised of even more spots. 

“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,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles.

This animation shows a sequence of images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), in its RC3 mapping orbit. The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

This animation shows a sequence of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 km), in its RC3 or science mapping orbit. The image resolution is 0.8 mile (1.3 km) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn recently concluded its first science orbit, making a 15-day full circle around Ceres while gathering data with its suite of science instruments. This past Saturday, May 9, its ion engine fired once again to lower the spacecraft to its second science orbit which it will enter on June 6. On that date, the probe will hover just 2,700 miles (4,400 km) above the dwarf planet and begin a comprehensive mapping of the surface. Scientists also hope the bird’s eye view will reveal clues of ongoing geological activity.

Check out this great video compiled from Dawn’s still frames of Ceres by Tom Ruen. Almost feels like you’re there.

There’s no doubt a lot’s been happening on Ceres. One look at all those cracks hint at either impact-related stresses some kind of crustal expansion. Geological processes may still make this little world rock and roll.

In this uncropped single frame, not only are multiple white spots visible but also long, parallel cracks or troughs in Ceres' surface. Credit:

In this uncropped single frame, not only are multiple white spots visible but also long, roughly parallel cracks or troughs in Ceres’ surface. Are they impact-related or caused by some other stress? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Fortunately, we won’t have to wait till next month for more photos. NASA plans to pause the probe twice on the way down to shoot and send fresh images.

, ,

33 Responses

  1. Steven says:

    Interestingly in that bottom picture there is a very dark spot on the right side and what appears to be a very raised area on the farthest right.

    • Bob King says:

      Good eye. Looking again, I now see a couple additional bumps (left side). The dark spot is curious.

    • gopher65 says:

      Could be a chasm of the type we have already seen on Mars and Luna. A collapse of ancient underground lava tubes, or something similar with a different fluid (like water).

    • Ps8 says:

      I wondered about that dark spot too, but it may well turn out to be just a photographic “artifact”. I say this because there appear to be two other artifacts in first image of 22 frames, line 3, frames 2 and 4. There too you can see a small dark ring, and then a dark spot, with nothing in the neighboring frames to indicate that they are growing or fading in appearance, as other features do. In all three cases, more pictures will prove them to be either artifacts, or very interesting realities. Can’t wait to see which they prove to be.

  2. BlackWolfStanding says:

    What I would expect to see is pressure ridges from when this dwarf planet was first formed or from major collisions is has had since. What would surprise me is any cracks from internal heat sources or weather not associated with impacts.

    • Bob King says:

      They may be tectonic related. To my eye, they have the appearance of faults similar to ones seen on the Moon.

  3. Aqua4U says:

    Thanks for the update Bob. Talk about an enigma wrapped in a mystery! At least until the spacecraft gets a bit closer? Can’t wait!

    • Bob King says:

      Curiouser and curiouser …

      • Aqua4U says:

        What are the odds that a comet, or asteroid, would break up just prior to a dead center impact on an older crater?

      • Bob King says:

        A plausible idea. Spattering of material OR better, removal of darker surface material through impact?

      • Pasander says:

        But could a spinning asteroid tear apart like that before hitting? If so, it was most likely coming in pretty slow.. Perhaps a double to begin with?

      • FarAwayLongAgo says:

        And I think that a comet would evaporate and slowly fall back all over Ceres. Not leaving a lump of itself in the crater it makes.

  4. UFOsMOTHER says:

    Nice update Bob, The crack runs just above the crater with the white dots all the way across to the horizon and looks like the San Andreas Fault line as seen from the air, The white reflective objects are probably ice but wouldn’t it be great if the next closer images show an Alien Mining Complex lol ….:)

    • Bob King says:

      I feel privileged to be alive at a time when we can sit back and watch so many discoveries unfold right before our eyes. What I wouldn’t give to get Galileo or William Herschel over here for dinner to share the bounty … and a glass of wine.

      • Steven says:

        Bob, you put that very well! They would be so amazed! I could only image! I have had the same thought many times. Thanks for the great article. I think I will have a glass of wine and daydream about it!

      • UFOsMOTHER says:

        Well said Bob 🙂

    • sangos says:

      Unlikely place to setup shop unless the only unobtanium is on Ceres.

  5. kwestdjonmaarc says:

    its a migratory interplanetary bioluminescent space goo! ……from Maarrrrsss!!!

  6. Pete says:

    Amazing amazing amazing!
    Thank you Bob for great coverage of a WHOLE NEW THING!
    (Ya think?)
    One wonders what New Horizons will reveal on its journey.

  7. Dick C. Hoagland MUST be having a field day with this……………. (groan)

    • kwestdjonmaarc says:

      lulz 😉

    • Bob King says:

      Hoagland better seize the moment while things are still fuzzy. I suspect it won’t be long before we know what they are. Low res images are the haunt of the conspirator.

      • BCstargazer says:

        If DeBeers finds out what it really is, there will be a “Race To Ceres”.
        Wait a second, Elon is from South Africa too, right?
        Coincidence ??

  8. Jaffysaur says:

    This is a picture of UFO’s Partying. If they get pissed were screwed. Omg the end is near! :O

  9. NilsO says:

    I had a posting on earthsky.org (http://earthsky.org/space/closest-look-yet-at-ceres-bright-spots). Unfortunately, there was a swarm of moron posters bombing the site. I therefore repeat the posting here, as no one is going to read all the crap comments on earthsky.org:

    In the montage, the white spots are too overexposed to make out much detail. I really hope NASA adjusts the shutter speed next time. But in the first and last images (corresponding to sunrise/sunset), it appears the central white spot is a mountain, with the sun shining on the mountain top.

    My theory: The impact crater is similar to Tycho crater on the moon, with a central mountain peak formed by the impact. Moreover, the impact would have created deep cracks into Ceres’ heated and watery interior. The water vapor released from the cracks, would condense and deposit ice crystals on the surface.

    The theory that the impactor would have carried the water is less plausible, because the impact would create too high temperatures, vaporising and releasing all carried water into space.

    The water vapor release would either have to be initially huge, forming a thick ice sheet; or smaller, but continous (or at least intermittent) ever since the impact crater formed. Otherwise, the ice would have sublimated a long time ago.

    The other spots visible are probably not mountains, but ice sheets covering parts of the crater plain, formed by the same cracks.

    Summary: We have one large ice mountain, one large ice plain, and several other ice spots within the crater. They may have formed from an initial huge release of water vapor from the interior, or still being replenished from water vapor seeping up from the interior.

    If I am the first venting this theory, I hereby claim priority. Of course, I may be completely wrong.

    • BCstargazer says:

      good hypothesis but it was pretty much a waste to post it on earthsky, where fb commenters still have the deep “belief” and intense “feeling” that nibiru is going to appear out of nowhere with little or no warning (as all amateur astronomers are incapable of detecting it or are part of the nasa conspiracy) and despite the laws of physics and orbital mechanics, still has the velocity of a Sol orbiting object.
      On the subject of your claim to priority, international law is pretty clear about that since the “dibs” moments of comet Schoemaker-Levy 9 and comet Hale-Bopp.
      So, in conclusion, dibs 😉

    • Bob King says:

      I enjoyed reading your hypothesis about the origin of the white spots. Very well thought out and plausible especially if you consider the analogy with the lunar maria. After the enormous impacts, magma oozed up to fill the basins. Given that Ceres almost certainly has water ice, impact-related cracks could melt and mobilize subsurface ice, which then might rise to or be exposed at the surface.

  10. QubitsToy says:

    Please don’t post my comment with those private dropbox links. I have learned that dropbox can be compromised. I have a lot of current work files on that web site. I just wanted to share that with you.

  11. QubitsToy says:

    Please don’t post my comment with those private dropbox links. I have learned that dropbox can be compromised. I have a lot of current work files on that web site. I just wanted to share that with you.

  12. QubitsToy says:

    Many people (myself included) have noticed the dark Torus, Triangle and Cigar shape that appear in many zoomed up images from the RC3 NASA animation. If you analyze the entire GIF you will find that those shapes stay in perfect relationship to each other in every frame. Also the same shapes can be seen in photos of Vesta. So they must be artifacts introduced during stitching or debris on the lens of Dawn. Here is an animation highlighting the effect.

Comments are closed.