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Scientists Stumped by Bright Lights on Dwarf Planet

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Two bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres have scientists scrambling for an explanation. The spots were seen by an imager on the space probe Dawn, which settled into orbit around  Ceres on March 6.

Some scientists are speculating that the bright spots may be volcanoes. If true, it would mark Ceres as the smallest body in the solar system with active geology.

Fox News reports:

The planet, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, has an average diameter of 590 miles and is the largest body in the main asteroid belt and is believed to contain a large amount of ice.

“Ceres’ bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin,” Chris Russell, a principal investigator for the Dawn mission, said in a news release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“This maybe pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations,” Russell said.

Scientists hope to get a better view of Ceres in the next week as Dawn is scheduled to enter the planet’s orbit March 6. The bright spots that have captivated the world might soon come into sharper focus.

“The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres,” Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planch Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, said in the release.

The Dawn spacecraft has already delivered more than 30,000 images of Vesta – the second largest body in the main asteroid belt – during an orbit in 2011 and 2012.

The volcanic activity on Ceres could be ice geysers, a phenomenon common on other icy bodies in the solar system. But the ice geysers on Jupiter’s moon Europa are thought to be connected with the constant pulling and pushing of Jupiter’s gravity on Europa’s core, which causes heat and pressure to build, melting the ice, and sending the geysers skyward through cracks in the crust. If there are ice geysers on Ceres, it must be through a previously unknown process.

This is an exciting year for space enthusiasts. In addition to Dawn, the spacecraft New Horizons will have its close encounter with Pluto on July 14. When the spacecraft launched from earth in 2006, Pluto was still considered a planet. Now, it is one of several hundred dwarf planets, having been downgraded when other bodies of similar size were found in the Kuiper Belt.