Dawn Spacecraft orbits Ceres

Tejal Patel, Campus Life Editor



On March 7, 2015, the spacecraft Dawn became the first spacecraft ever to orbit the mysterious dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres has been puzzling scientists since Dawn sent back it’s first pictures of this dwarf planet back on February 9. These pictures showed two mysterious white dots located right in the middle of the planet. Scientists are still pondering what these white dots are, and what they are made of. Many think that these dots are salt flats or ice, and that the dots are just reflecting sunlight.

One of the brighter spots on Ceres, called Spot 1, shows up darker than the surrounding area in the infrared images sent back by Dawn. This shows that the spot is probably cooler than the area surrounding it, which helps support the theory that Ceres spots are made of ice. However, the brightest spot on Ceres, Spot 5, doesn’t even show up on an infrared map. Though the scientists leading the Dawn mission have no idea why this is, Federico Tosi, a Dawn scientist who works at the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome, thinks that they still don’t have enough resolution to see it in a proper way. If the spots are made of ice, then there is a possibility that Ceres has a liquid ocean under its surface. This would make it possible for Ceres to be able to host life as we know it today.

As Dawn approached Ceres, it showed that Ceres was filled with craters. Could these craters show that there was a thin layer of soil underneath the surface that could be easily shaped? Scientists are still waiting to get a closer look at Ceres in order to determine if anything is really under the surface. Another feature of Ceres that has been puzzling scientists is it’s density. When Ceres density was taken, it was shown that it was less dense than the terrestrial planets in our solar system. Because of this, many people believe that either ice or water, because water is less dense that any type of metal or dirt. The Herschel Space Telescope, sent by the ESA, observed water inside the environment of Ceres. This could be proof of cryovolcanism, where volcanoes, instead of spewing out hot lava, gush out water or other fluids to the surface.

Humans have always wondered if there is another life out there, or if there is even a planet like our Earth where we could grow and live in. Discovering the secrets to the dwarf planet Ceres can help lead us one step closer to the answer.