Bright spots on Ceres likely salt deposits

Based on an analysis of Dawn images scientists now believe that the bright spots on Ceres are salt deposits, not water ice.

Le Corre and colleagues, using images from Dawn’s framing camera, suggest that these salt-rich areas were left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids would have unearthed the mixture of ice and salt. “The location of some bright spots also coincide with places where water vapor was detected by other spacecraft,” said Reddy, a PSI Research Scientist. “This gives us confidence that the bright spots are likely salt deposits left over by sublimating salty water.”

While the bright spots themselves are not ice, they are what is left over after salty water evaporates.

Oblique view of Ceres’s bright spots

Occator Crater on Ceres

Cool image time! The image above is a newly released image of Occator Crater on Ceres, the location of the dwarf planet’s double bright spots, taken by Dawn in October.

I have cropped the image to focus on the crater and the bright spots. Unlike most previous images, this one is taken from an angle to bring out the topography, which also confirms what other data had shown, that the bright spots are not on top of any peaks. If anything, they appear to be located at low spots in the crater, as that previous data had suggested.

Though the spots are not really very bright, they are very bright relative to the dark surface of Ceres. This is why it is difficult to get a good image of them. Either you have to over-expose the spots to see the surface details around them, or under-expose the surface around them to see some detail in the spots. This image tries to find a middle ground.

Eventually they will move Dawn in very close to try to get higher resolution images of the spots alone. At that time we might finally be able to get a better understanding of what causes them.

New close-up image of Ceres’s double bright spots

close-up of Ceres's bright spots

Cool image time! The Dawn science team has released a some new close-up images of Ceres, including a much higher resolution image of the dwarf planet’s double bright spot, which now resolves itself into a cluster of two larger spots with a half dozen smaller spots scattered nearby.

The region with the brightest spots is in a crater about 55 miles (90 kilometers) across. The spots consist of many individual bright points of differing sizes, with a central cluster. So far, scientists have found no obvious explanation for their observed locations or brightness levels.

“The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we’ve seen before in the solar system. The science team is working to understand their source. Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt. With closer views from the new orbit and multiple view angles, we soon will be better able to determine the nature of this enigmatic phenomenon,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

To my eye, these bright areas resemble a wide flat caldera of a volcano. Instead of being at the top of a peak, the caldera is like a lava pool, almost like a large lake. In this case, the large spots are lakes of frozen ice that periodically melt and flow. The smaller spots are likely smaller vents where water can bubble up from below during active periods. When not active, the water will be frozen. Since ice is white and Ceres is very dark, the pools and vents appear extremely bright in these images.

I am speculating however. We will have to wait for much better images to know for sure.

New close-up photos of the asteroid Vesta from Dawn have discovered numerous bright spots scattered across the face of the asteroid Vesta.

New close-up photos of the asteroid Vesta from Dawn have discovered numerous bright spots scattered across the face of the asteroid Vesta.

The photos show surprisingly bright spots all over Vesta, with the most predominant ones located inside or around the asteroid’s many craters. The bright areas range from large spots (around several hundred feet across) to simply huge, with some stretching across 10 miles (16 kilometers) of terrain.

The scientists believe the bright spots might be the asteroid’s oldest material, excavated from below by impacts.