The mystery continues. New observations made using the HARPS spectrograph at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, have revealed unexpected changes in the bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres.
Although Ceres appears as little more than a point of light from the Earth, very careful study of its light shows not only the changes expected as Ceres rotates, but also that the spots brighten during the day and also show other variations. These observations suggest that the material of the spots is volatile and evaporates in the warm glow of sunlight.
Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and the only such object classed as a dwarf planet. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been in orbit around Ceres for more than a year and has mapped its surface in great detail. One of the biggest surprises has been the discovery of very bright spots, which reflect far more light than their much darker surroundings. The most prominent of these spots lie inside the crater Occator and suggest that Ceres may be a much more active world than most of its asteroid neighbours.
New and very precise observations using the HARPS spectrograph at the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla, Chile, have now not only detected the motion of the spots due to the rotation of Ceres about its axis, but also found unexpected additional variations suggesting that the material of the spots is volatile and evaporates in sunlight.
The lead author of the new study, Paolo Molaro, at the INAF–Trieste Astronomical Observatory, takes up the story:
“As soon as the Dawn spacecraft revealed the mysterious bright spots on the surface of Ceres, I immediately thought of the possible measurable effects from Earth. As Ceres rotates the spots approach the Earth and then recede again, which affects the spectrum of the reflected sunlight arriving at Earth.”
Images credit ESO/L.Calçada/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Steve Albers/N. Risinger