Ice Deposits on Ceres Might Only Be a Few Thousand Years Old

The dwarf planet Ceres has some permanently dark craters that hold ice. Astronomers thought the ice was ancient when they were discovered, like in the moon’s permanently shadowed regions. But something was puzzling.

Why did some of these shadowed craters hold ice while others did not?

Ceres was first discovered in 1801 and was considered a planet. Later, it was thought to be the first asteroid ever discovered, since it’s in the main asteroid belt. Since then, our expanding knowledge has changed its definition: we now know it as a dwarf planet.

Even though it was discovered over 200 years ago, it’s only in the last couple of decades that we’ve gotten good looks at its surface features. NASA’s Dawn mission is responsible for most of our knowledge of Ceres’ surface, and it found what appeared to be ice in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs.)

New research shows that these PSRs are not actually permanent and that the ice they hold is not ancient. Instead, it’s only a few thousand years old.

The new research is titled “History of Ceres’s Cold Traps Based on Refined Shape Models,” published in The Planetary Science Journal. The lead author is Norbert Schorghofer, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

“The results suggest all of these ice deposits must have accumulated within the last 6,000 years or less.”

Norbert Schorghofer, senior scientist, Planetary Science Institute.

Dawn captured its first images of Ceres while approaching the dwarf planet in January 2015. At that time, it was close enough to capture images as good as Hubble’s. Those images showed craters and a high-albedo site on the surface. Once captured by Ceres, Dawn followed a polar orbit with decreasing altitude. It eventually reached 375 km (233 mi) above the surface, allowing it to see the poles and surface in greater detail.

“For Ceres, the story started in 2016, when the Dawn spacecraft, which orbited around Ceres at the time, glimpsed into these permanently dark craters and saw bright ice deposits in some of them,” Schorghofer said. “The discovery back in 2016 posed a riddle: Many craters in the polar regions of Ceres remain shadowed all year – which on Ceres lasts 4.6 Earth years – and therefore remain frigidly cold, but only a few of them harbor ice deposits.”

As scientists continued to study Ceres, they made another discovery: its massive Solar System neighbours make it wobble.

“Soon, another discovery provided a clue why: The rotation axis of Ceres oscillates back and forth every 24,000 years due to tides from the Sun and Jupiter. When the axis tilt is high and the seasons strong, only a few craters remain shadowed all year, and these are the craters that contain bright ice deposits,” said lead author Schorghofer.

This figure from the research shows how Ceres’ obliquity has changed over the last 25,000 years. As the obliquity varies, sunlight reaches some crater floors that were thought to be PSRs. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.

Researchers constructed digital elevation maps (DEMs) of the craters to uncover these facts. They wanted to find out how large and deep the shadows in the craters were, not just now but thousands of years ago. But that’s difficult to do since portions of these craters were in deep shadow when Dawn visited. That made it difficult to see how deep the craters were.

Robert Gaskell, also from the Planetary Science Institute, took on the task. He developed a new technique to create more accurate maps of the craters with data from Dawn’s sensitive Framing Cameras, contributed to the mission by Germany. With improved accuracy, these maps of the crater floors could be used in ray tracing to show sunlight penetrated the shadows as Ceres wobbled over thousands of years.

This figure from the study shows some of the DEMs the researchers developed for craters on Ceres. White regions represent sunlit areas, while the coloured contours represent PSRs for different axial tilts. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.

The DEMs in the above image show that at 20 degrees obliquity, none of the craters are in permanent shadow. That means none of them have truly permanent PSRs. “A PSR starts to emerge in Bilwis crater at about 18°, and they emerge at lower obliquities at the other six study sites. This implies that the ice deposits are remarkably young,” the researchers write in their paper.

This figure from the research shows PSRs in the north-polar region of Ceres. The colour scale shows how oblique each crater is. The research shows that 14,000 years ago, none of these were PSRs, and the ice they hold now is only 6,000 years old. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.

About 14,000 years ago, Ceres reached its maximum axial tilt. At that time, no craters were PSRs. Any ice in these craters would’ve been sublimated into space. “That leaves only one plausible explanation: The ice deposits must have formed more recently than that. The results suggest all of these ice deposits must have accumulated within the last 6,000 years or less. Considering that Ceres is well over 4 billion years old, that is a remarkably young age,” Schorghofer said.

So, where did the ice come from?

There must be some source if the ice is young and keeps reforming during maximum obliquity. The only plausible one is Ceres itself.

“Ceres is an ice-rich object, but almost none of this ice is exposed on the surface. The aforementioned polar craters and a few small patches outside the polar regions are the only ice exposures. However, ice is ubiquitous at shallow depths – as discovered by PSI scientist Tom Prettyman and his team back in 2017 – so even a small dry impactor could vaporize some of that ice.” Schorghofer said. “A fragment of an asteroid may have collided with Ceres about 6,000 years ago, which created a temporary water atmosphere. Once a water atmosphere is generated, ice would condense in the cold polar craters, forming the bright deposits that we still see today. Alternatively, the ice deposits could have formed by avalanches of ice-rich material. This ice would then survive in only the cold shadowed craters. Either way, these events were very recent on an astronomical time scale.”

There are other potential sources of water ice. Ceres has a very thin, transient water atmosphere. The water could come from cryovolcanic processes and then be trapped and frozen in shadowed regions.

Ceres also has a single cryovolcano: Ahuna Mons. It’s at least a couple hundred million years old and long dormant. There are dozens of other dormant potential cryovolcanoes, too. But these likely aren’t the water source.

There’s ample water ice at shallow levels in Ceres. If the dwarf planet erodes over time, mass-wasting could expose and release water that freezes in the craters. “The few ice deposits that have been detected spectroscopically outside the polar regions are indeed often associated with landslides, and the sunlit portion of the ice deposit in Zatik crater is best explained by a recent mass wasting event,” the authors explain.

Ceres has been through a lot. As an ancient protoplanet that’s survived to this day, it holds important clues to the Solar System. Though its craters don’t hold ancient ice like once thought, deeper study is revealing the dwarf planet’s true nature.

“The ice deposits in the Cerean PSRs indicate an active water cycle; ice is either repeatedly captured and lost or frequently exposed, or both,” the authors conclude.

Evan Gough

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