The lights are on but nobody’s home: Suspicious happenings on Ceres

26 Feb 2015

Image of Ceres from NASA's Dawn spacecraft, captured last week, 46,000km from its surface. Via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

What is it about dwarf planets that send scientists in a spin? Ceres now features two mysterious lights, quite close together, wrecking US space agency NASA’s buzz.

Indeed NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is getting closer and closer to the planet, now just (!) 46,000km from its surface, and the latest images sent home are quite the puzzle.

NASA already knew of one bright spot, which was fairly impossible to explain in itself, but now there’s a second nearby and scientists haven’t a clue what’s going on.

“The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres. This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.

Dawn will actually enter Ceres’ orbit quite soon, planned for March 6 to be precise, when these strange bright lights will come into focus and NASA will hopefully gain surface knowledge of the planet.

A roving photographer, Dawn’s previous mission saw it visit Vesta, an asteroid, from 2011 to 2012, and it sent back tens of thousands of images which helped NASA establish its geological history. It’s hoped the same will be true of Ceres.

Two images of Ceres

Images of dwarf planet Ceres, processed to enhance clarity, taken on 19 February. Dawn observed Ceres completing one full rotation, which lasted about nine hours. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“Ceres’ bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin. This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Of course Dawn isn’t the only photographer foregoing Earth’s beauty for a desolate career snapping objects in space. The New Horizons probe recently captured images of Pluto’s two moons, Nix and Hydra, for the first time exactly 85 years after the dwarf planet was first discovered.

It all reminds us here of Monty Python’s suspiciously excellent Universe Song, please enjoy.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic