Earlier this year, astronomers were perplexed by two sparkling bright spots on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres, which is the largest object in the asteroid belt that sits between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Now, thanks to close-up images from the Dawn spacecraft, they're certain the bright spots are simply the sun's light reflecting off some geological feature, such as ice.
"Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice," Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, said in a press release.
Previous images were captured from about 29,000 miles out and the bright spots were too blurry to make any kind of conclusions about what might be causing the glittering surface features. The working theory was that the bright spots were indeed caused by sun light reflecting off of ice or salt patches, but until Dawn crept up closer, NASA scientists weren't totally sure.
Luckily last week Dawn captured images of Ceres's surface from a distance of just 8,400 miles (the closest ever), allowing for a resolution of 0.8 miles per pixel and giving scientists confidence that the bright spots are indeed the sun's reflection. It gave scientists a closer look at the shapes and sizes of craters on the dwarf planet's surface and they also made this cool gif:
Now, Dawn is spiraling down to an even lower orbit of 2,700 miles where it will capture even more detailed images and map the surface of the dwarf planet throughout the month of June. So if you enjoy gifs and photos of previously-unexplored celestial bodies (and who doesn't?), stay tuned!