NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has returned the closest images yet of Ceres — the Solar System’s largest dwarf planet, which lurks in the Asteroid Belt.
Dawn also captured a 3D video of Ceres’ surface that revealed a mountain, a crater, and those mysterious bright spots in stunning detail.
The new photos and other data, however, are inspiring more questions about the mysterious world than answers.
This is the closest look we’ve gotten at those strange bright spots, which are still baffling to scientists. Some of them sit at the bottom of a huge, two-mile-deep crater:
The spots reflect much more sunlight than the material around them, so many scientists initially thought they might be patches of ice or even ice volcanoes. However, new measurements of how reflective the bright spots are came in lower than what you’d typically expect from ice.
“We are now comparing the spots with the reflective properties of salt, but we are still puzzled by their source,” Dawn’s principal investigator Chris Russell said in a press release.
Here’s a fly-around animation of the same crater:
On a completely different side of Ceres, scientists found a mountain that sticks up four miles high from an otherwise flat area. It’s cone-shaped and about the same height as Alaska’s Mount McKinley, which is the tallest peak in North America.
Scientists aren’t sure what geological process formed it, or why one side appears dark and the other side is covered with light streaks:
“It’s unusual that it’s not associated with a crater,” Paul Schenk, a geologist working on the Dawn mission, said. “Why is it sitting in the middle of nowhere? We don’t know yet, but we may find out with closer observations.”
We’ll continue getting sharper images as Dawn orbits closer and closer to Ceres, and hopefully we’ll finally figure out what those bright spots are.
You can watch the full animation of Ceres’s surface features below:
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