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The uncertainty of science: Ground-based observations of Ceres now suggest that the white spots imaged by Dawn undergo subtle unexpected variations
As Ceres rotates every 9 hours, HARPS is so sensitive that it can detect the very slight Doppler shift in spectrum frequency as the bright spots rotate toward and away Earth, but during observations for 2 nights in July and August 2015, more changes not related to Ceres’ spin were detected. “The result was a surprise,” said co-author Antonino Lanza, also from the INAF–Catania Astrophysical Observatory. “We did find the expected changes to the spectrum from the rotation of Ceres, but with considerable other variations from night to night.”
And it appears that these changes are consistent with some kind of volatile (ice) being exposed to sunlight and venting vapor into space, causing an increase in reflectivity. It seems that when Occator experiences solar heating, plumes are produced and then evaporate, creating a complex spectroscopic signal that evolves during that hemisphere’s daytime. This finding appears to be consistent with earlier observations made by Dawn showing a mysterious haze over Occator.
The problem with this theory is that it assumes the white spots are comprised of water ice. However, data from Dawn has instead suggested that the white spots are not water but salt deposits.
It could be that the white spots are salt left behind when water vented from inside Ceres evaporates away, but so far the data from Dawn has not found any evidence of water at the spots. If it was venting there, Dawn should have seen it.