SCIENCE

NASA Probe Gives Close-Up Look At Dwarf Planet Ceres, But What Are Those Weird White Spots?

02/06/2015 05:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2015

What are those things?

Scientists have been puzzling over a set of weird white spots on Ceres ever since 2004, when the spots showed up in images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, io9.com reported. Now NASA's Dawn space probe, which is drawing ever closer to the dwarf planet, has obtained the best images yet of the spots--and still no one can explain them.

"We are at a phase in the mission where the curtain is slowly being pulled back on the nature of the [dwarf planet's] surface," Dr. Chris Russell, planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and principal investigator for the $466-million mission, told NBC News. "But the surface is different from that of other planets, and at this stage the increasing resolution presents more mysteries rather than answers them."

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A view of Ceres taken by Dawn on Feb. 4, when the NASA spacecraft was about 90,000 miles (145,000 kilometers) away from the dwarf planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

With a diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers), Ceres is the largest object in the solar system's main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. Signs of water were detected on Ceres just last year, and some astronomers think the white spots may be ice at the bottoms of craters or subsurface ice that's been pushed up from under the dwarf planet's surface.

Scientists hope the Dawn mission will help us understand how Ceres and other large celestial objects formed.

Dawn is expected to arrive at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

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