Fresh images snapped by NASA's Dawn spacecraft have provided a clearer look at the enigmatic white spots that mark the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres. The spots have baffled scientists who are unable to discern their nature or composition. To add to the intrigue the probe has spotted a solitary, unusual pyramid-like mountain jutting out of the otherwise relatively smooth surface.
The new images were produced as Dawn undertook a second mapping orbit of the dwarf planet from a distance of around 2,700 miles (4,400 km). On closer inspection, it appears that at least eight smaller spots are scattered next to a large primary spot in a 55-mile (90 km) wide crater.
The largest spot is estimated to be around 6 miles (9 km) wide, however exactly what it is and how it came to be remains a mystery. It is likely that the reflective nature of the phenomenon is owed to a composition of salt or ice, though further observation with the spacecraft's infrared mapping spectrometer will allow scientists to hone their theories.
What's more, the bright spots are not the only geological points of interest on Ceres.
“The surface of Ceres has revealed many interesting and unique features," says deputy principal investigator for the Dawn mission Carol Raymond. "For example, icy moons in the outer solar system have craters with central pits, but on Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common. These and other features will allow us to understand the inner structure of Ceres that we cannot sense directly."
The close mapping orbit also allowed the probe to capture images of an unusual pyramid-like mounting jutting out of the relatively smooth surface of Ceres. Its solitude, and the steep nature of its slopes seem at odds with the barren landscape as it looms 3 miles (5 km) above the surface.
In time, Dawn will grant us a better view of the mysterious formation, but until then, the peak will undoubtedly become a conspiracy theorists favourite, alongside other treasured myths such as the fabled face on Mars.
Dawn's next move wil be to establish a new orbit of 900 miles (1,450 km) above Ceres surface, which it should achieve in early August.
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