Scientists think they know what the bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres are

Ceres’bright spots in false colour. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Scientists think they know more about what causes the bright spots seen on the dwarf planet Ceres.

Not a lot more – the agency says the phenomenon is “consistent” with a type of magnesium sulphate. Basically, it’s a massive dump of interplanetary bath salts.

A team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany have been poring over data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft mission to Ceres since the spacecraft arrived in June, focusing on more than 130 mysterious bright patches on the planet’s surface.

They have just released some of their findings in the journal Nature.

“The global nature of Ceres’ bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice,” study author Andreas Nathues said.

NASA released a video and a set of images in false colour to highlight the findings. False colour is used to highlight variations in geology. In this case, blue is associated with salts.

The team believes asteroid impacts may have exposed the mixture of ice and salt and the brightest occurrence can be seen in a crater called Occator.

Occator. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Occator measures about 90km across and the bright areas at the bottom are about 500m down. There is also evidence of a peak – or what’s left of one – in the center of the crater.

Dawn scientists believe the crater was formed 78 million years ago and is one of the youngest features on the planet’s surface.

The team has also spotted evidence of a haze rising off the floor of Occator, around midday, which suggests water vapour mixed with dust reacting to the Sun, similar to surface activity on comets as they warm.

The haze. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“The Dawn science team is still discussing these results and analyzing data to better understand what is happening at Occator,” Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, said.

Here’s the video:

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