Has NASA stumbled upon the blinding lights of an extraterrestrial rock concert? The closest images ever of Ceres, the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, have revealed the best view yet of the mystery lights on its cratered surface that have puzzled astronomers for some time. The bizarre bright spots have been described as “alien,” but the new images, captured by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft May 3 and May 4 and posted online by the U.S. space agency on Monday, are providing new clues to what the unexplained lights could be.
"Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice," Christopher Russell of the University of California, Los Angeles, and principal investigator for the Dawn mission, said in a statement. Scientists believe there are massive amounts of ice buried under the dwarf planet’s surface, given that its density is less than Earth’s.
Ceres is located within the asteroid belt – scraps left behind after the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago – between Mars and Jupiter. It is the asteroid belt’s largest object, making up about one-third of the region’s total mass. The dwarf planet was discovered in 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi and was the first dwarf planet ever found, according to NASA -- long before Pluto, which was later demoted to that class.
The Dawn spacecraft was launched in 2007 to study Ceres and Vesta, the asteroid belt’s second-largest object. The probe has been circling Ceres on a data-gathering mission for 15 days from a distance of 8,400 miles. The images will be used to map the planet.
Scientists hope further analysis of the dwarf planet will reveal the true nature of the mystery lights. Dawn is expected to make another pass by Ceres in June from a distance of just 2,700 miles.