By Mark Wachtler
February 26, 2015. Planet Ceres. (ONN) An announcement by NASA last month, complete with pictures and a video, raised eyebrows among amateur and professional astronomers alike. It seems the space agency has been on a mission to a little-known planet inside our own solar system named Ceres. It’s located in the asteroid belt on the other side of Mars. When NASA’s spacecraft DAWN approached the planet, it snapped pictures and a video of the surface, capturing a city-sized bright light. Is there life on Ceres? With a NASA spacecraft speeding to the planet, we’ll find out next month.
Planet Ceres from 238,000 miles away. Image courtesy of NASA and Space.com.
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Are we the only ones surprised to hear that there is a planet we’ve never heard of hiding in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and orbiting our own Sun? And if it is so unimportant, why is NASA sending a reconnaissance craft to the planet? Those questions were superseded last month by bigger questions when the spacecraft beamed back pictures of planet Ceres and scientists saw a city-sized bright light on the surface that looked a lot like images of Earth cities captured from space.
According to Space.com and NASA, Ceres is not only a planet, it’s only two planets away from Earth in our own solar system. It’s simultaneously classified as both the largest body in the asteroid belt and the smallest planet in our solar system. Much like Pluto, it seems the astronomy community is divided over what Ceres is. Suddenly however, the question has changed from ‘what is Ceres’ to ‘what is that thing that looks like a city on the surface of Ceres?’
For some background, Ceres is about 590 miles in diameter, or roughly the same width as Texas. It’s considered a dwarf planet and orbits our own sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. On January 13th, NASA’s spacecraft DAWN sent images and a video of Ceres back to Earth. The pictures were taken from a distance of 238,000 miles and revealed what appeared to be a number of large craters on the planet, as well as a mysterious bright light. The DAWN mission is targeting Ceres and the craft will enter the dwarf planet’s orbit on March 6th.
Ceres keeps surprising
Could it be possible that we’ve been searching the galaxy for extraterrestrial life and it was on our own block and only two doors down all along? NASA is speeding an investigative spacecraft to the planet right now to find out. According to various news reports, this isn’t the first time planet Ceres has surprised scientists. A report from NBC News details how last year, water was detected on Ceres in the form of geysers shooting up from below the planet’s surface. The planet has water, it’s in the ‘sweet spot’ for life in our solar system, and it has a solid composition. Does that mean it could already have life?
The account from NBC News yesterday updated the Ceres story, complete with a series of pictures taken and released by NASA’s DAWN probe as it approaches its targeted orbit around Ceres. At the much closer distance, the pictures focus on the mysterious bright spot that looked like a city in previous images. The newer, closer pics revealed not one mysterious bright light, but two. The lights were shown to be emanating from inside a large crater on the surface of the planet.
The newer pictures were taken on February 19th from a distance of 29,000 miles away from Ceres. That’s ninety percent closer than the first set of images. Launched in 2007, the DAWN probe will enter the dwarf planet’s orbit in eight days and stay there for one year. The goal of the mission is to map the surface of Ceres and at one point, the probe will fly only 232 miles overhead.
What could the lights be?
Scientists and astronomers around the world are as curious about the bright lights on Ceres as everyone else. According to Andrea Nathues, one of the German team members in the DAWN project, “This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us.” UCLA astronomer and fellow DAWN team member Chris Russell added, “Right now, all we can say is that the material reflects forty percent or more of the light falling on it.” When pressed, most of the scientists asked said their first guess is that the light is a reflection caused by ice.
Russell went on to warn people not to rush to conclusions. “There could be salt on the surface, which would be more reflective than the general claylike material we think covers much of the surface,” he said, “So there is a range of possibilities.”
From 200,000 miles away, the bright light did resemble what looked like a mini-city made by mini-creatures on a mini-planet. But now that DAWN is getting closer and closer, the chances that intelligent life exists on planet Ceres becomes more remote. But the chances of life existing on a basic or microbial level have increased. The planet’s location in our solar system, its clay-like make-up, and the presence of water, all make Ceres a prime candidate for life of some kind. And with the DAWN probe speeding even closer to the surface of the planet, we’ll know much more in about two weeks. Stay tuned.