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NASA Flummoxed By Dwarf Planet's Bright Spots, 'Pyramid-Shaped Peak'

New images of Ceres are the clearest ever taken, but NASA's scientists still haven't figured out the enigmatic dwarf planet. The agency's latest photos of Ceres show multiple bright spots — and a "pyramid-shaped peak towering over a relatively flat landscape."

That's according to an update posted by the space agency, saying that Ceres and its bright spots "continue to mystify."

Ceres has long been a bit of a mystery, but it began mystifying NASA in earnest earlier this year, when images arrived that showed two unmistakably bright spots in a large crater on the dwarf planet's surface.

The view captured by the Dawn spacecraft this month "shows even more small spots in the crater than were previously visible," NASA says, providing the latest revelations about a dwarf planet that the agency has said "has more in common with Earth and Mars than its rocky neighbors."

According to NASA:

"At least eight spots can be seen next to the largest bright area, which scientists think is approximately 6 miles (9 kilometers) wide. A highly reflective material is responsible for these spots — ice and salt are leading possibilities, but scientists are considering other options, too."

The images have added new detail to an area of Ceres' surface that was shown to contain a white spot back in 2004, in an image of Ceres by the Hubble Space Telescope. Even before this year's surprising images arrived, NASA suspected that Ceres may hold large amounts of water ice beneath its surface.

Of the newly highlighted pyramid-shaped mountain, NASA estimates that it rises about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the surface of Ceres, which lies in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

A roughly pyramid-shaped mountain protrudes from a relatively smooth area of Ceres in this image taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on June 14.
A roughly pyramid-shaped mountain protrudes from a relatively smooth area of Ceres in this image taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on June 14.

The images are being beamed back to Earth by the Dawn spacecraft, which placed itself in an orbit around Ceres earlier this year. The craft is currently 2,700 miles away from the dwarf planet — which means that capturing images of its surface is a bit like taking a photograph of San Francisco from New York City.

Dawn is about to get a much closer look at Ceres. NASA says that after June 30, the spacecraft will "move into its next orbit at an altitude of 900 miles (1,450 kilometers), arriving in early August."

The puzzling sights of Ceres — and the public's fascination with a dwarf planet — have prompted NASA to hold a public vote on possible answers.

As of Tuesday, the possibility that had attracted the most votes is the somewhat ominous "Other" — at 40 percent.

Here are the rest of the results:

  • Ice: 29 percent
  • Volcano: 9 percent
  • Salt Deposit: 9 percent
  • Geyser: 7 percent
  • Rock: 6 percent
  • As we reported in February, "Ceres is some 590 miles across, with a diameter that's wider at the equator than at the poles. Scientists have called it an 'embryonic planet' whose development was stalled by the gravity of nearby Jupiter."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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