NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting and exploring the new world Ceres, has sent some mysterious pictures of the dwarf planet to Earth. While the surface of Ceres is otherwise dark, the images captured by Dawn show hundreds of spots that are bright and exceptionally stand out in the images.
NASA scientists studied the pictures to comprehend how those reflective areas were created and how they changed over the course of time, effectively indicating towards an evolving and active world.
"The mysterious bright spots on Ceres, which have captivated both the Dawn science team and the public, reveal evidence of Ceres' past subsurface ocean and indicate that, far from being a dead world, Ceres is surprisingly active. Geological processes created these bright areas and may still be changing the face of Ceres today," said the deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission, Carol Raymond.
The latest results regarding the bright spots on Ceres were presented on December 12 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans by Raymond and his colleagues, reported NASA.
The Dawn probe had reached the orbit of the dwarf planet in 2015 and since the inception of the mission, scientists have discovered over 300 bright areas on the surface of Ceres. Now a new study, which has been published in Icarus, has divided the bright spots of Ceres into four categories. The study was led by a doctoral researcher of Caltech at Pasadena, Nathan Stein.
The first category of bright areas has "the most reflective material on Ceres, which is found on crater floors," reported NASA. The second group, which is more common on the planet, contains a bright material that can be found on craters' edges. Now, the third category's bright matter can be seen in the ejected stuff during the formation of craters.
"The mountain Ahuna Mons gets its own fourth category -- the one instance on Ceres where bright material is unaffiliated with any impact crater. This likely cryovolcano, a volcano formed by the gradual accumulation of thick, slowly flowing icy materials, has prominent bright streaks on its flanks," said NASA.
According to the report by the space agency, bright materials of Ceres have mixed with the dark ones, since millions of years, to form most of the surface of the planet. This means that billions of years ago, when the dwarf planet faced more impacts than it does now, its surface must have been infused with these hundreds of bright spots.
"Previous research has shown that the bright material is made of salts, and we think subsurface fluid activity transported it to the surface to form some of the bright spots," stated Stein.
As Dawn goes on to the final leg of its mission, where it will reach the altitudes of the planet lower than ever before, scientists would continue to learn more about the bright materials on the dwarf planet and also the origin of the Occator's unfathomable features. Occator is one of the most iconic craters of the planet and its bright spots are completely different from each other.