Ceres Bright Spots Keep Their Secret Even From 2,700 miles Up

Don’t get me wrong. I love this new photo. Dawn snapped it from its second mapping orbit from 2,700 miles up on June 6. The number of craters and the detail visible in the parallel troughs snaking through the scene are breathtaking. That’s why I hate to niggle about the white spots.

While they appear larger and sharper than images taken in May from a greater distance, they’re too bright to show much new detail. I can’t help but wonder if mission scientists might adjust the exposure a bit the next time around.

Tighter crop on the 55-mile crater that's home to the cluster of white spots. Credit:
Tighter crop on the 55-mile (90-km) crater that’s home to the cluster of white spots. I applied a small amount of sharpening and toned down the spots just a little. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

When photographing bright objects here on Earth, we expose “for the highlights” or the bright areas in photos to avoid overexposure and loss of detail.

What a satisfying view! NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
What a satisfying view! This image, also taken on June 6, shows a large crater in Ceres’ southern hemisphere as well as cracks and radial fractures possibly associated with impacts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Naturally, when you try to capture details in something bright, your background will go dark. But that might be what’s needed here – a change in exposure to reveal more detail in the spots at the expense of the landscape. Doubtless NASA will release enlarged and detailed images of these enigmatic dots later this summer. Just call me impatient.

Scientists still don’t understand the nature of the spot cluster, but reflective ice or salt remain the strongest possibilities.

What is this - the Moon? A view of craters in Ceres' northern hemisphere from June 6, 2015. Credit: Bright Spots Shine in Newest Dawn Ceres Images VIR Image of Ceres, May 2015Bright Spots in Ceres' Second Mapping OrbitCeres' Southern Hemisphere in Survey Ceres' Northern Hemisphere in Survey Craters in the northern hemisphere of dwarf planet Ceres are seen in this image taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on June 6, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
A lunar-like landscape in Ceres’ northern hemisphere photographed on June 6, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we’ve seen before in the solar system,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission. “The science team is working to understand their source. Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt.”

Images from Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) show a portion of Ceres' cratered northern hemisphere, taken on May 16, 2015. From top to bottom, the views include a black-and-white image, a true-color view and a temperature image. The true-color view contains reddish dots that are image artifacts, which are not part of Ceres' surface.
Images from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) show a portion of Ceres’ cratered northern hemisphere, taken on May 16, 2015 from 4,500 miles (7,300 km) away. From top to bottom, the views include a black-and-white image, a true-color view and a temperature image. In the bottom infrared view, the lightest areas are hottest and darkest are the coolest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

It’s interesting to compare and contrast Ceres with Dawn’s first target asteroid, Vesta. Craters of every size dominate both small worlds, but Ceres shows evidence of a more activity in the form of relaxed crater rims (possibly due to ice deformation), landslides and collapsed structures.

Dawn takes about three days to orbit at its current 2,700 mile altitude. It will continue to take photos and make science observations until dropping into a new lower altitude of 900 miles (1, 450 km) in early August.

Ceres Bright Spots Sharpen But Questions Remain

The latest views of Ceres’ enigmatic white spots are sharper and clearer, but it’s obvious that Dawn will have to descend much lower before we’ll see crucial details hidden in this overexposed splatter of white dots. Still, there are hints of interesting things going on here.

Comparison of the most recent photos of the white spots taken Dawn's current 4,500 miles vs. 8,400 miles on May 3. Credit:
Comparison of the most recent photos of the white spots taken Dawn’s current 4,500 miles vs. 8,400 miles on May 4. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The latest photo is part of a sequence of images shot for navigation purposes on May 16, when the spacecraft orbited 4,500 miles (7,200 km) over the dwarf planet. Of special interest are a series of troughs or cracks in Ceres crust that appear on either side of the crater housing the spots.

While the exact nature of the spots continues to baffle scientists, Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, has narrowed the possibilities: “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.”

Two views of an impact exposing water ice on Mars. The bright material conspicuous in this image was excavated from below the surface and deposited nearby by a 2008 impact that dug a crater about 8 meters (26 feet) in diameter. The extent of the bright patch was large enough for the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, an instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to obtain information confirming the material to be water ice. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The bright material in both photos was excavated from below the surface and deposited nearby by a 2008 impact that dug a crater about 26 feet (8 meters) in diameter. The extent of the bright patch was large enough for the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, an instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to obtain information confirming it as water ice. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

We’ve seen ice exposed by meteorite / asteroid impact before on Mars where recent impacts have exposed fresh ice below the surface long hidden by dust. In most cases the ice gradually sublimates away or covered by dust over time. But if Ceres’ white spots are ice, then we can reasonably assume they must be relatively new features otherwise they would have vaporized or sublimated into space like the Martian variety.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took these images of the asteroid 1 Ceres over a 2-hour and 20-minute span, the time it takes the Texas-sized object to complete one quarter of a rotation.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took these images of the asteroid 1 Ceres over a 2-hour and 20-minute span, the time it takes the Texas-sized object to complete one quarter of a rotation. The observations were made in visible and in ultraviolet light. Hubble took the snapshots between December 2003 and January 2004. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Parker, P. Thomas and L. McFadden

Much has been written – including here – that these spots are the same as those photographed in much lower resolution by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004. But according the Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog, that’s false. He spoke to Joe Parker, who was part of the team that made the 2004 photos, and Parker says the Dawn spots and Hubble spots are not the same.

Could the spots have formed post-2004 or were they simply too small for Hubble to resolve them? That seems unlikely. The chances are slim we’d just happen to be there shortly after such a rare event occurred? And what happened to Hubble’s spot – did it sublimate away?


Video compiled from Dawn’s still frames of Ceres by Tom Ruen. Watch as the spots continue to reflect light even at local sunset.

Watching the still images of Ceres during rotation, it’s clear that sunlight still reflects from the spots when the crater fills with shadow at sunset and sunrise. This implies they’re elevated, and as far as I can tell from the sunrise photo (see below), the brightest spots appear to shine from along the the side of  a hill or mountain. Could we be seeing relatively fresh ice or salts after recent landslides related to impact or tectonic forces exposed them to view?

 The crater with white spots shortly after sunrise. The bright spots appear to be on a central mountain. It's unclear if the pair of spots below the bright pair are situated on a rise or the flat floor. Credit: NASA
Single from from the video shows the white spots shortly after sunrise. The brightest appear to be located on a central mountain peak.  It’s unclear if the pair of spots below the bright pair are situated on a rise or the flat floor. Credit: NASA

Let’s visit another place in the Solar System with an enigmatic white spot, or should I say, white arc. It’s Wunda Crater on Uranus’ crater-blasted moon Umbriel. The 131-mile-wide crater, situated on the moon’s equator, is named for Wunda, a dark spirit in Aboriginal mythology. But on its floor is a bright feature about 6 miles (10 km) wide. We still don’t know what that one is either!

The moon Umbriel,  727 miles in diameter, with Wunda Crater and its bright internal ring of unknown origin. The moon's equator is vertical in this photo. Credit: NASA
The moon Umbriel, 727 miles in diameter, with Wunda Crater and its bright internal ring of unknown origin. The moon’s equator is vertical in this photo. Credit: NASA

Ceres’ White Spots Multiply in Latest Dawn Photos

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.