Twinkle, twinkle, little planet? Dwarf planet Ceres is the focus of NASA’s attention this week when its probe Dawn will make history and enters Ceres’s orbit on Friday, beginning its investigation of the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. What most want to know is what is the cause of the two bright spots on the planet’s surface.
“Ceres has really surprised us, and the first images have produced some really puzzling features that have got the team, and I think some other people, really excited,” said Dawn Deputy Principal Investigator Carol Raymond, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The two bright spots could be ice, possibly caused by a crashing meteor melting ice under the planet’s surface. Or the plume from an ice volcano (which sounds ridiculously cool). Does Ceres have an underground ocean? Scientists think it’s possible, especially after 2014 observations of water vapor by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory. What is the source of the lights? Ice? Salt deposits? Water vapor? Or a giant neon sign that reads “Welcome. Earthlings. What Took You So Long?”