There’s a big white spot on Ceres and we don’t know what it is. We’ve known about the white spot since the Hubble Space Telescope first captured images of it in 2003 and 2004, and in subsequent images taken by Hubble, the spot remains visible. Now, in images released yesterday from the Dawn spacecraft, currently on approach to Ceres, the spot remains. In the animated image, below, the spot almost seems to glint in the sunlight.
What is it?
One of the most anticipated aspects the Dawn spacecraft being in orbit around Ceres HAS to be finding out what this spot is. It could be ice, it could be a cryovolcano or geysers, or it could be something else. But we do know fairly certain that it is a real feature and not an image artifact, since it shows up in most of the recent Hubble images and now the Dawn images.
Planetary scientists have long suspected that water ice may be buried under Cere’s crust. A few things point to subsurface ice: the density of Ceres is less than that of the Earth’s crust, and because the surface bears spectral evidence of water-bearing minerals. Scientists estimate that if Ceres were composed of 25 percent water, it may have more water than all the fresh water on Earth. Ceres’ water, unlike Earth’s, would be in the form of water ice and located in the mantle, which wraps around the asteroid’s solid core.
And then last year, the Herschel space telescope discovered water vapor around Ceres, and the vapor could be emanating from water plumes — much like those that are on Saturn’s moon Enceladus – or it could be from cryovolcanism from geysers or icy volcanoes. Without huge a planet or satellite nearby tugging on it, the mechanism for how Ceres is active is also intriguing.
Some scientists also think Ceres may have an ocean and possibly an atmosphere.
As we discussed in our article yesterday, with all that water potentially at Ceres, could it theoretically host microbial life? Some scientists have hinted that Ceres and other icy bodies could be a possible source for life on Earth, another intriguing proposition.
Yesterday, I asked Dawn scientist Paul Schenk what other factors would have to be present in order for microbial life to have arisen on Ceres.
“The presence of carbon molecules is often regarded as necessary for life,” he replied, “and we think we see that on the surface spectroscopically in the form of carbonates and clays. So, I think the questions will be, whether there is actually liquid water of any kind, whether the carbon compounds are just a surface coating or in the interior, and whether Ceres has ever been warm. If those are true then some sort of prebiotic or biotic activity is in play.”
And we’ll soon find out more about this intriguing dwarf planet.
As the deputy principal investigator for Dawn, Carol Raymond said following the Herschel water vapor discovery, “We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself.”
NASA says that Dawn’s images will surpass Hubble’s resolution at the next imaging opportunity, which will be at the end of January.
The spacecraft arrives at Ceres on March 6, when it will be captured into orbit. The images will continue to improve as the spacecraft spirals closer to the surface during its 16-month study of the dwarf planet. Dawn will eventually be about 1,000 times closer to Ceres than it was for the images released yesterday and therefore will provide 1,000 times as much detail. Dawn at Ceres is primarily a mapping mission, so it will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high resolution.
It should reveal the processes that drive the outgassing activity, and it should reveal how much water this dwarf planet holds.
And it should reveal the mystery of that white spot.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.