Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and the only such object classed as a dwarf planet. NASA's Dawn spacecraft has been in orbit around Ceres for more than a year and has mapped its surface in great detail. One of the biggest surprises has been the discovery of very bright spots, which reflect far more light than their much darker surroundings . The most prominent of these spots lie inside the crater Occator and suggest that Ceres may be a much more active world than most of its asteroid neighbours.
New and very precise observations using the HARPS spectrograph at the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla, Chile, have now not only detected the motion of the spots due to the rotation of Ceres about its axis, but also found unexpected additional variations suggesting that the material of the spots is volatile and evaporates in sunlight.
This artist's impression is based on a detailed map of the surface compiled from images taken from NASA's Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres. It shows the very bright patches of material in the crater Occator and elsewhere. New observations using the HARPS spectrograph on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla in Chile have revealed unexpected daily changes on these spots, suggesting that they change under the influence of sunlight as Ceres rotates.
Credit: ESO/L.Calçada/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Steve Albers/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)
The lead author of the new study, Paolo Molaro, at the INAF-Trieste Astronomical Observatory , takes up the story: "As soon as the Dawn spacecraft revealed the mysterious bright spots on the surface of Ceres, I immediately thought of the possible measurable effects from Earth. As Ceres rotates the spots approach the Earth and then recede again, which affects the spectrum of the reflected sunlight arriving at Earth."
Ceres spins every nine hours and calculations showed that the velocities of the spots towards and away from the Earth due to this rotation would be very small, of order 20 kilometres per hour. But this motion is big enough to be measurable via the Doppler effect with high-precision instruments such as HARPS.
The team observed Ceres with HARPS for a little over two nights in July and August 2015. "The result was a surprise," adds Antonino Lanza, at the INAF-Catania Astrophysical Observatory and co-author of the study. "We did find the expected changes to the spectrum from the rotation of Ceres, but with considerable other variations from night to night."
The team concluded that the observed changes could be due to the presence of volatile substances that evaporate under the action of solar radiation . When the spots inside the Occator crater are on the side illuminated by the Sun they form plumes that reflect sunlight very effectively. These plumes then evaporate quickly, lose reflectivity and produce the observed changes. This effect, however, changes from night to night, giving rise to additional random patterns, on both short and longer timescales.
If this interpretation is confirmed Ceres would seem to be very different from Vesta and the other main belt asteroids. Despite being relatively isolated, it seems to be internally active . Ceres is known to be rich in water, but it is unclear whether this is related to the bright spots. The energy source that drives this continual leakage of material from the surface is also unknown.
Dawn is continuing to study Ceres and the behaviour of its mysterious spots. Observations from the ground with HARPS and other facilities will be able to continue even after the end of the space mission.
 Bright spots were also seen, with much less clarity, in earlier images of Ceres from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope taken in 2003 and 2004.
 It has been suggested that the highly reflective material in the spots on Ceres might be freshly exposed water ice or hydrated magnesium sulphates.
 Many of the most internally active bodies in the Solar System, such as the large satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, are subjected to strong tidal effects due to their proximity to the massive planets.
This research was presented in a paper entitled "Daily variability of Ceres' Albedo detected by means of radial velocities changes of the reflected sunlight", by P. Molaro et al., which appeared in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The team is composed of P. Molaro (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste, Trieste, Italy), A. F. Lanza (INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Catania, Catania, Italy), L. Monaco (Universidad Andres Bello, Santiago, Chile), F. Tosi (INAF-IAPS Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Rome, Italy), G. Lo Curto (ESO, Garching, Germany), M. Fulle (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste, Trieste, Italy) and L. Pasquini (ESO, Garching, Germany).
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".
INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Cell: +49 151 1537 3591
Richard Hook | EurekAlert!
APEX takes a glimpse into the heart of darkness
25.05.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie
First chip-scale broadband optical system that can sense molecules in the mid-IR
24.05.2018 | Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences