After a year of speculation since NASA's Dawn mission arrived in orbit around dwarf planet Ceres, we may be coming close to answer as to what is causing its mysterious bright spots inside the famous Occator Crater.
"Before Dawn began its intensive observations of Ceres last year, Occator Crater looked to be one large bright area," said Ralf Jaumann, planetary scientist and Dawn co-investigator at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin. "Now, with the latest close views, we can see complex features that provide new mysteries to investigate."
PHOTOS: Dwarf Planet's Weirdly Mysterious Surface Mapped
Revealed at the 47th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas on Tuesday, this enhanced color view (pictured top) inside the 57 mile-wide crater reveals a wonderfully detailed observation of a dome-like structure. The dome, nestled inside a smooth-walled pit, exhibits fractures and is surrounded by blotchy white clusters.
These are the highest-resolution pictures of this famous region captured so far as Dawn was carrying out low mapping orbits yet, coming within 240 miles from the small world's surface.
"The intricate geometry of the crater interior suggests geologic activity in the recent past, but we will need to complete detailed geologic mapping of the crater in order to test hypotheses for its formation," said Jaumann.
Further work is needed to fully understand what internal mechanisms are driving Occator's strange geology, but from these observations, the domed structure certainly appears to be volcanic in origin. However, if confirmed, this is a very different kind of volcano than what we are familiar with on Earth.
ANALYSIS: Mystery Mountain Pops Up in Striking Ceres Photo
Long before Dawn entered Ceres orbit, it was known that Ceres, which lives in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, has significant quantities of water in the upper layers of its surface. The bright spots inside Occator were also observed, leading to speculation that Ceres' geology is driven by cryovolcanoes. Assuming significant quantities of volatiles (ices) inside Ceres are gently heated by the dwarf planet's interior, these chemicals could be erupting through the surface layers. Over time, a dome may form, cracking and resurfacing the crust.