May 25, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

NASA Scientists Mystified by White Spot on Ceres

Jan 26, 2015 10:02 PM EST

NASA's Dawn spacecraft continues its approach to the dwarf planet Ceres for its planned mission.  During this approach it has already snapped several images of this small planet located in the asteroid belt.  And what these pictures have revealed has mystified scientists at NASA for weeks.

A strange, flickering white blotch has been found on the dwarf planet Ceres, puzzling scientists.

"Yes, we can confirm that it is something on Ceres that reflects more sunlight, but what that is remains a mystery," Mission Director and Chief Engineer for the Dawn mission, Marc Rayman says.

Currently, however, the Dawn spacecraft is too far away to provide any clearer images or study the strange phenomenon.  The images reveal areas of light and dark on the face of the dwarf planet, indicating the presence of craters on the surface.  But, at least for the moment, no specific features can be determined including the white spot as seen in the photographs.

"We do not know what the white spot is, but it's certainly intriguing," Rayman says. "In fact, it makes you want to send a spacecraft there to find out, and of course that is exactly what we are doing! So as Dawn brings Ceres into sharper focus, we will be able to see with exquisite detail what [the white spot] is."

Ceres is unique in our solar system.  Located in the asteroid belt, it is the largest body present in the belt, and it is classified as both a dwarf planet and an asteroid.  Ceres is 590 miles across (950 kilometers) making it roughly the size of Texas, meaning that Ceres is also the smallest known dwarf planet in the solar system.

The $466 million Dawn spacecraft is set to enter orbit around Ceres on March 6.  At this point, scientists should begin to receive data that will hopefully reveal what this mysterious spot actually is.  Dawn left Earth in 2007 and first made contact with Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. 

Vesta shared many properties with our solar system's inner planets such as Mars and Earth, but scientists believe that Ceres will have more in common with the outermost planets.  Currently, scientists believe that 25 percent of Ceres' mass is made up of water, which could mean that there is more water on Ceres than Earth.  Scientists have observed water vapor plumes erupting from the surface that may indicate volcano-like geysers present on the surface.

The mysterious white spot is expected to be investigated by researchers once the probe reaches the dwarf planet adding to the long list of activities they hope to accomplish while Dawn orbits the asteroid.  Scientists are already preparing to investigate as the white spot is just one more curious feature about this already intriguing object that scientists want to explore.

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