Mysterious bright spots on dwarf planet puzzling NASA scientists

Years into its mission to survey the asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft traveled through deep space to better understand the dwarf planet Ceres. Now within 52,000 miles of the celestial body, Dawn’s latest images still leave scientists baffled about Ceres’ bright white spots.

“As we slowly approach the stage, our eyes transfixed on Ceres and her planetary dance, we find she has beguiled us, but left us none the wiser,” Chris Russel, lead investigator of the Dawn mission, said in a statement released Monday. “We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled.”

Dawn’s latest high-resolution images were taken on Feb. 12, 2015. They are sharper than any of the fuzzy ones the Hubble Space Telescope captured in 2004, but they don’t lead scientists to any robust hypothesis for the composition of the dwarf planet, which is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Russell told the NewsHour on Tuesday that the bright spots on Ceres have remained a mystery as Dawn floats closer and closer.

“[The spots] aren’t breaking up into any structure, they’re not giving us any clues to what it is,” he said. “The craters and structures on the surface aren’t coming into focus either … [Ceres] is sort of just staying hidden from our eyes, more than I had expected it to be.”

The 590-mile wide spherical body is as large as Texas and is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn previously studied the protoplanet Vesta, the second-largest object in the belt, in 2011.

Russell said scientists are turning their attention to bodies like Vesta and Ceres because they have the same basic processes, such as earthquakes and mountain building, seen on much more complex bodies like Earth.

“We’re taking a look at baby planets, simple planets, that will help us understand the formation of larger planets better because of the basic physics we’re seeing,” Russell said.

Dawn is scheduled to enter Ceres’ orbit on March 6, hopefully allowing the spacecraft to get an even better view of the dwarf planet’s surface.