What are those strange lights on the dwarf planet Ceres?

As a NASA spacecraft approaches a dwarf planet in our solar system, scientists are stumped by what appear to be two bright lights shining from its surface.

NASA's unmanned Dawn craft is on its way toward Ceres, which, as the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is officially categorized as a dwarf planet. With the vessel 29,000 miles away on Feb. 19, it snapped a picture of Ceres' surface -- and revealed a mystery.

Two bright lights seem to be shining out from a basin on Ceres' highly cratered surface. Scientists had previously spotted one of the lights in earlier images, but now the closer photos clearly show two such spots.

Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, said in a NASA statement, "This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us. The brightest spot (of the two) continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres." (The image below was sent back earlier from Dawn.)


So what is causing the two shiny areas? The most likely answer is ice, but volcanoes or even patches of salt might be the source as well. Both ice and lava would shine more brightly, however, so either the spacecraft is still too far away to capture the full reflection or the solution is something else.

And yes, since our thoughts automatically gravitate in this direction, we can't help but wonder if the lights are a beacon or signal of some kind. But they're probably just ice ... right?

We'll know more in the next week or so as Dawn heads for its March 6 rendezvous with Ceres and its two enigmatic lights.

(via Mashable)

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