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Those weird spots on Ceres? Probably water ice

Image: Ceres' Occator Crater
This color-coded representation of Ceres’ Occator Crater shows differences in surface composition, highlight bright patches inside the crater. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

For months, scientists have puzzled over weirdly bright spots of material shining on the asteroid Ceres, but now they say the spots are probably made of salty ice.

That determination, based on a detailed analysis of spectral data from NASA’s Dawn orbiter, comes in a paper published today by the journal Nature. Dawn’s images highlight one particular patch in a 106-mile-wide impact basin known as Occator Crater, but other spots are spread across the surface of the 590-mile-wide dwarf planet.

“The global nature of Ceres’ bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice,” the study’s principal author, Andreas Nathues of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, said in a NASA statement. He and his co-authors suggest that cosmic impacts dig up enough surface material to expose the shiny ice.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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