The Mysterious Eyes on Ceres, Could be ‘Water Volcanoes,’ Scientists Say

A pair of mysterious bright spots on the asteroid Ceres could be towering ‘water volcanoes’, scientists claim.

Recent images from the Dawn spacecraft reveal the spots, dubbed ‘feature number 5’, at various angles as the asteroid rotates.

Ceres rotates in this sped-up movie comprised of images taken by NASA’s Dawn mission during its approach to the dwarf planet. The glimmers of light are visible even when they are near the edge of Ceres, suggesting that are on a high elevation in relation to the rest of the surface.

The glimmers of light are visible even when they are near the edge of Ceres, suggesting that they must be high above the surface rather than at the bottom of an impact crater, as previously believed.

What is amazing is that you can see the feature while the rim is still in the line of sight,’ said Andreas Nathues, a planetary scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany.

He noted that at dawn on Ceres, the spots shine brightly, but fade as dusk draws in.

According to Nature, this could mean sunlight plays an important role in the formation of the features by, for instance, heating up ice just beneath the surface and causing it blast of in a plume. Scientists have speculated that the interior of Ceres is rocky with a layer of water and ice.

The leading theory now for the alien spots is that the ice is covered by a thin layer of soil that at times forms into huge ‘cryovolcanoes’ due to internal pressure in the asteroid.

Ceres continues to baffle astronomers as Dawn orbits the dwarf planet. This image was taken by the Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on February 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 km). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin.

While Nasa has not provided an explanation, scientists previously said these spots may be frozen pools of ice at the bottom of a crater that reflect light.

Dawn observed Ceres completing one full rotation, which lasted about nine hours. The images show the full range of different crater shapes that can be found at Ceres’ surface: from shallow, flattish craters to those with peaks at their centers.


The Dawn spacecraft pulled into orbit earlier this month around the Ceres in the asteroid belt. The probe is currently on the dark side of Ceres and won’t emerge until April.

For now, the team say they need higher resolution images of the ‘alien’ spots to reveal its true nature.   

‘It could be quite interesting,’ Dawn lead scientist Christopher Russell, with the University of California, Los Angeles told Discovery News.ceres

‘I believe we’ll show Ceres is every bit a planet as its terrestrial neighbors Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury,’ Russell said.

As scientists receive better views of the dwarf planet over the next few months, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of its origin and evolution by studying its surface.

The intriguing bright spots and other interesting features of this captivating world will come into sharper focus.

‘The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres,’ said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.

Dawn has been steadily returning stunning animations of Ceres.’We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres.

‘Now, Dawn is ready to change that,’ said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

These images, pulled together in this animation were taken on February 4th at a distance of about 90,000 miles (145,000 km). Over the next weeks, Dawn will provide increasingly sharper images of the icy world.

 Ceres is 590 miles (950 km) across. In January, researchers discovered that water was gushing from its surface at a rate of 13lb (6kg) per second.

“Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission director at JPL. “Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, NASA’s Dawn calls Ceres, home.”

‘Now, finally, we have a spacecraft on the verge of unveiling this mysterious, alien world,’ Dawn mission director and chief engineer Marc Rayman, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said.

The ‘alien’ mark can be clearly seen in images the icy world as the Dawn probe hurtled its way towards a rendezvous on March 6th.

‘Soon it will reveal myriad secrets Ceres has held since the dawn of the solar system.’

Ceres orbits the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and is very similar to Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus – both considered potential sources for harbouring life.

The presence and abundance of water in bodies like Ceres could have relevance for the origin of life on Earth and the large-scale migration of planets such as Jupiter.

One scenario suggests as the giant planets migrated they disturbed populations of small rocky and icy asteroids and comets which hit the early Earth and Moon – delivering organic molecules and water to Earth.

Dawn will be captured into Ceres’ orbit in March, marking the first visit to a dwarf planet by a spacecraft (artist’s impression pictured).

Ceres is twice the size of Saturn’s geyser-spouting moon Enceladus which is suspected of having liquid water beneath its surface.

It lies less than three times as far as Earth from the sun – close enough to feel the warmth of the star allowing ice to melt and reform.

Since launching in 2007, Dawn has already visited Vesta, a giant protoplanet currently located 104 million miles (168 million km) away from Ceres.

The distance between Vesta and Ceres is greater than the distance between the Earth and the sun.

During its 14 months in orbit around Vesta, the spacecraft delivered unprecedented scientific insights, including images of its cratered surface and important clues about its geological history.

Vesta and Ceres are the two most massive bodies in the main asteroid belt.

Source: Daily Mail

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