Water ice from a subterranean ocean? Giant salt deposits from an alien mining operation? Since March, dwarf planet Ceres’ bright spots have mystified scientists, dazzled space nerds, and sparked all manner of wild speculation. A study published today in Nature has the answers we’ve been waiting for. Ceres, you are one fantastically complex beast of a space rock.
By Maddie Stone|GIZMODO
To recap: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been capturing images of Ceres—the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—since it began its close approach in December of 2014. By March 2015, Dawn had reached its first distant orbit around the dwarf planet (yes, Ceres, not Pluto, is the very first dwarf planet visited by humans). The spacecraft has continued to spiral into closer orbits ever since, snapping photos to create high-resolution maps of Ceres’ surface and using several on-board science instruments to probe its composition in more detail.
As Ceres came into focus over the winter, we couldn’t help but draw our gaze to two prominent glimmering bright spots. As we crept closer, we realized that there were not just two of these mysterious features, but lots and lots. The largest of the bright spots, located in the now-infamous Occator crater, is around 6 miles (9 kilometers) wide—as Gizmodo’s Chris Mills notes, that’s large enough for an alien city. These things are big, and they are everywhere.