First Hubble and Now Dawn Have Seen This White Spot on Ceres. What is it?

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?

Animation of Ceres made from Dawn images acquired on Jan. 13, 2015 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)
Animation of Ceres made from Dawn images acquired on Jan. 13, 2015 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

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.

Images from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 of Ceres. Credit: NASA/Hubble.
Images from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 of Ceres. Credit: NASA/Hubble.

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.

This processed image, taken Jan. 13, 2015, shows the dwarf planet Ceres as seen from the Dawn spacecraft. The image hints at craters on the surface of Ceres. Dawn's framing camera took this image at 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers) from Ceres. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This processed image, taken Jan. 13, 2015, shows the dwarf planet Ceres as seen from the Dawn spacecraft. The image hints at craters on the surface of Ceres. Dawn’s framing camera took this image at 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers) from Ceres. Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Here’s Ceres Compared to All the Other Asteroids We’ve Visited

When the Dawn mission was in its planning stages, Ceres was considered an asteroid. But in 2006, a year before the mission launched, the International Astronomical Union formed a new class of solar system objects known as dwarf planets, and since by definition a dwarf planet is spherical and travels in an orbit around the Sun, Ceres fit that definition perfectly.

But since it’s located in the Asteroid Belt, we still tend to think of Ceres as an asteroid. So, how does Ceres compare to other asteroids?

Dr. Paul Schenk, who is a participating scientist on the Dawn mission, recently put together some graphics on his website and the one above compares Ceres to other asteroids that we’ve visited with spacecraft.

Of course, Ceres is bigger (it’s the biggest object in the Asteroid Belt) and more spherical than the other asteroids. When it comes right down to it, Ceres doesn’t look much like an asteroid at all!

“Ceres is most similar in size to several of Saturn’s icy moons and may be similar internally as well, being composed of 25% water ice by mass,” Schenk noted on his website.

 Comparisons of Ceres with other prominent icy objects.  Dione is Ceres' closest twin in size and mass. Image credit: NASA/ESA. Compiled by Paul Schenk.
Comparisons of Ceres with other prominent icy objects. Dione is Ceres’ closest twin in size and mass. Image credit: NASA/ESA. Compiled by Paul Schenk.

And water is one of the most interesting and mysterious aspects of Ceres. A year ago, 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 volcano.

“The water vapor question is one of the most interesting things we will look for,” Schenk told Universe Today. “What is its source, what does it indicate about the interior and activity level within Ceres? Is Ceres active, very ancient, or both? Does it go back to the earliest Solar System? Those are the questions we hope to answer with Dawn.”

Some scientists also think Ceres may have an ocean and possibly an atmosphere, which makes Dawn’s arrival at Ceres in March one of the most exciting planetary events of 2015, in addition to New Horizon’s arrival at Pluto.

“Since we don’t know why the water vapor venting has happened, or even if it continues, it’s hard to say much more than that,” Schenk said via email, “but it is theoretically possible that some liquid water still exists within Ceres. Dawn will try to determine if that is true.”

One of the possibilities that has been discussed is that if the water vapor is confirmed, Ceres could potentially host microbial life. I asked Schenk what other factors would have to be present in order for that to have occurred?

“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.”

Since we do not know the answer to any of these questions yet, Schenk says Dawn’s visit to Ceres should be interesting!

On thing of note is that Dawn is now closing in on Ceres and just today, the team released the best image we have yet of Ceres, which you can see in our article here.

Read more of Schenk’s article, “Year of the ‘Dwarves’: Ceres and Pluto Get Their Due.”

Keep tabs on the Dawn mission by following Universe Today, or see the Dawn mission website.

Here’s Dawn’s Best View of Ceres Yet

Just sit back and watch the world turn… or should I say, watch the dwarf planet turn in this fascinating animation from Dawn as the spacecraft continues on its ion-powered approach to Ceres!

The images were captured by Dawn’s framing camera over the course on an hour on Jan. 13 at a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 km) from Ceres. At 590 miles (950 km) wide Ceres is the largest object in the main asteroid belt.

“Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany. “We have identified all of the features seen by Hubble on the side of Ceres we have observed, and there are also suggestions of remarkable structures awaiting us as we move even closer.”

Although these latest 27-pixel images from Dawn aren’t quite yet better than Hubble’s images from Jan. 2004, very soon they will be.

Comparison of HST and Dawn FC images of Ceres taken nearly 11 years apart
Comparison of HST and Dawn FC images of Ceres taken nearly 11 years apart

“The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring.”

Launched Sept. 27, 2007, Dawn previously spent over 13 months in orbit around the asteroid/protoplanet Vesta from 2011–12 and is now on final approach to Ceres. On March 6 Dawn will arrive at Ceres, becoming the first spacecraft to enter orbit around two different target worlds.

Read more: Find Out How “Crazy Engineering” is Getting Dawn to Ceres

Learn more at JPL’s Dawn mission site here, and find out where Dawn is right now here.

Also, read more from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research here.

Source: NASA/MPI