Dawn sheds more light on Ceres’ bright spots

Image: Kupalo Crater on Ceres
This image of Ceres’ Kupalo Crater was captured by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from a height of about 240 miles on Dec. 21. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

For years, scientists puzzled over the bright spots that shine like alien headlights from the surface of Ceres, a dwarf planet in the main asteroid belt. Scientists are leaning toward identifying them as salt deposits, and now there’s a new line of evidence that could help tell the tale definitively.

The evidence takes the form of bright deposits in Kupalo Crater, one of the freshest craters spotted on Ceres. In this case, just a little bit of bright material can be seen on on the crater’s floor. But lots of the stuff is tumbling down from the crater’s rim.

The material shows up clearly in an image captured by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Dawn has been circling Ceres since last March, but last month it descended to a 240-mile orbit for up-close imaging. The newly released picture of Kupalo Crater was taken Dec. 21.

“This crater and its recently formed deposits will be a prime target of study for the team as Dawn continues to explore Ceres in its final mapping phase,” Paul Schenk, a Dawn science team member at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said Tuesday in a NASA news release.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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