Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at the largest asteroid/planetoid in the Main Belt – Ceres!
Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt. Within this region, it is estimated that there are over 150 million objects that measure 100 meters (330 ft) or more in diameter. The largest of these is the dwarf planet Ceres (aka. 1 Ceres), the only body in the Main Belt that is large enough – 940 km (585 mi) in diameter – to have undergone hydrostatic equilibrium (become spherical).
Because of its important location and the amenities this dwarf planet itself possesses, there are those who have proposed that we establish a colony on Ceres (and even some who’ve explored the idea of terraforming it). This could serve as a base for asteroid mining ventures as well as an outpost of human civilization, one which could facilitate the expansion of humanity farther out into the Solar System.
Ceres, at almost 1,000 km (620 miles) in diameter, is the largest body in the asteroid belt. Between 2015 and 2018, NASA’s ion-powered Dawn spacecraft visited the dwarf planet, looking for clues to help us understand how our Solar System formed. Ceres is the first dwarf planet ever visited by a spacecraft.
Now that scientists have worked with the data from Dawn, we’re starting to see just how unusual Ceres is. One of the most shocking of Dawn’s findings is the volcano Ahuna Mons, a feature that seems out of place on this tiny world. Now scientists from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have figured out how this strange feature formed on this intriguing little planet.
In 2007, the Dawn mission launched from Earth and began making its way towards two historic rendezvous in the Main Asteroid Belt. The purpose of this mission was to learn more about the history of the early Solar System by studying the two largest protoplanets in the Main Belt – Ceres and Vesta – which have remained intact since their formation.
In 2015, the Dawn mission arrived in orbit around Ceres and began sending back data that has shed light on the protoplanet’s surface, composition and interior structure. Based on mission data, Pasquale Tricarico – the senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) – has also determined that the Ceres also experienced an indirect polar reorientation in the past, where its pole rolled approximately 36° off-axis.
In science, one discovery often leads to more questions and mysteries. That’s certainly true of the ice volcanoes on the dwarf planet Ceres. When the Dawn spacecraft discovered the massive cryovolcano called Ahuna Mons on the surface of Ceres, it led to more questions: How cryovolcanically active is Ceres? And, why do we only see one?
In March of 2015, NASA’s Dawn mission became the first spacecraft to visit the protoplanet Ceres, the largest body in the Main Asteroid Belt. It was also the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, having arrived a few months before the New Horizons mission made its historic flyby of Pluto. Since that time, Dawn has revealed much about Ceres, which in turn is helping scientists to understand the early history of the Solar System.
Last year, scientists with NASA’s Dawn mission made a startling discovery when they detected complex chains of carbon molecules – organic material essential for life – in patches on the surface of Ceres. And now, thanks to a new study conducted by a team of researchers from Brown University (with the support of NASA), it appears that these patches contain more organic material than previously thought.
The new findings were recently published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters under the title “New Constraints on the Abundance and Composition of Organic Matter on Ceres“. The study was led by Hannah Kaplan, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, with the assistance of Ralph E. Milliken and Conel M. O’D. Alexander – an assistant professor at Brown University and a researcher from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, respectively.
The organic materials in question are known as “aliphatics”, a type of compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. To be fair, the presence of organic material on Ceres does not mean that the body supports life since such molecules can arise from non-biological processes.
Aliphatics have also been detected on other planets in the form of methane (on Mars and especially on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan). Nevertheless, such molecules remains an essential building block for life and their presence at Ceres raises the question of how they got there. As such, scientists are interested in how it and other life-essential elements (like water) has been distributed throughout the Solar System.
Since Ceres is abundant in both organic molecules and water, it raises some intriguing possibilities about the protoplanet. The results of this study and the methods they used could also provide a template for interpreting data for future missions. As Dr. Kaplan – who led the research while completing her PhD at Brown – explained in a recent Brown University press release:
“What this paper shows is that you can get really different results depending upon the type of organic material you use to compare with and interpret the Ceres data. That’s important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material.”
The original discovery of organics on Ceres took place in 2017 when an international team of scientists analyzed data from the Dawn mission’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRMS). The data provided by this instrument indicated the presence of these hydrocarbons in a 1000 km² region around of the Ernutet crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres and measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter.
To get an idea of how abundant the organic compounds were, the original research team compared the VIRMS data to spectra obtained in a laboratory from Earth rocks with traces of organic material. From this, they concluded that between 6 and 10% of the spectral signature detected on Ceres could be explained by organic matter.
They also hypothesized that the molecules were endogenous in origin, meaning that they originated from inside the protoplanet. This was consistent with previous surveys that showed signs of hydorthermal activity on Ceres, as well others that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts – all of which suggested that Ceres had an interior environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.
But for the sake of their study, Kaplan and her colleagues re-examined the data using a different standard. Instead of relying on Earth rocks for comparison, they decided to examine an extraterrestrial source. In the past, some meteorites – such as carbonaceous chondrites – have been shown to contain organic material that is slightly different than what we are familiar with here on Earth.
After re-examining the spectral data using this standard, Kaplan and her team determined that the organics found on Ceres were distinct from their terrestrial counterparts. As Kaplan explained:
“What we find is that if we model the Ceres data using extraterrestrial organics, which may be a more appropriate analog than those found on Earth, then we need a lot more organic matter on Ceres to explain the strength of the spectral absorption that we see there. We estimate that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics. That’s a huge difference compared to the six to 10 percent previously reported based on terrestrial organic compounds.”
If the concentrations of organic material are indeed that high, then it raises new questions about where it came from. Whereas the original discovery team claimed it was endogenous in origin, this new study suggests that it was likely delivered by an organic-rich comet or asteroid. On the one hand, the high concentrations on the surface of Ceres are more consistent with a comet impact.
This is due to the fact that comets are known to have significantly higher internal abundances of organics compared with primitive asteroids, similar to the 40% to 50% figure this study suggests for these locations on Ceres. However, much of those organics would have been destroyed due to the heat of the impact, which leaves the question of how they got there something of a mystery.
If they did arise endogenously, then there is the question of how such high concentrations emerged in the northern hemisphere. As Ralph Milliken explained:
“If the organics are made on Ceres, then you likely still need a mechanism to concentrate it in these specific locations or at least to preserve it in these spots. It’s not clear what that mechanism might be. Ceres is clearly a fascinating object, and understanding the story and origin of organics in these spots and elsewhere on Ceres will likely require future missions that can analyze or return samples.”
Given that the Main Asteroid Belt is composed of material left over from the formation of the Solar System, determining where these organics came from is expected to shed light on how organic molecules were distributed throughout the Solar System early in its history. In the meantime, the researchers hope that this study will inform upcoming sample missions to near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), which are also thought to host water-bearing minerals and organic compounds.
These include the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2, which is expected to arrive at the asteroid Ryugu in several weeks’ time, and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission – which is due to reach the asteroid Bennu in August. Dr. Kaplan is currently a science team member with the OSIRIS-REx mission and hopes that the Dawn study she led will help the OSIRIS-REx‘s mission characterize Bennu’s environment.
“I think the work that went into this study, which included new laboratory measurements of important components of primitive meteorites, can provide a framework of how to better interpret data of asteroids and make links between spacecraft observations and samples in our meteorite collection,” she said. “As a new member to the OSIRIS-REx team, I’m particularly interested in how this might apply to our mission.”
The New Horizons mission is also expected to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69 on January 1st, 2019. Between these and other studies of “ancient objects” in our Solar System – not to mention interstellar asteroids that are being detected for the first time – the history of the Solar System (and the emergence of life itself) is slowly becoming more clear.
The Dawn probe continues to excite and amaze! Since it achieved orbit around Ceres in March of 2015, it has been sending back an impressive stream of data and images on the protoplanet. In addition to capturing pictures of the mysterious “bright spots” on Ceres’ surface, it has also revealed evidence of cryovolcanism and the possibility of an interior ocean that could even support life.
Most recently, the Dawn probe conducted observations of the protoplanet while it was at opposition – directly between the Sun and Ceres surface – on April 29th. From this position, the craft was able to capture pictures of the Occator Crater, which contains the brightest spot on Ceres. These images were then stitched together by members of the mission team in order to create a short movie that showcases the view Dawn had of the planet.
The images were snapped when the Dawn probe was at an altitude of about 20,000 km (12,000 mi) from Ceres’ surface. As you can see (by clicking on the image below), the short movie shows the protoplanet rotating so that the Occator Crater is featured prominently. This crater is unmistakable thanks to the way its bright spots (two side by side white dots) stand out from the bland, grey landscape.
This increase in brightness is attributable to the size of grains of material on the surface, as well as their degree of porosity. As scientists have known for some time (thanks to the Dawn mission data) these bright spots are salt deposits, which stand out because they are more reflective than their surrounding environment. But for the sake of movie, this contrast was enhanced further in order to highlight the difference.
The observations were conducted as part of the latest phase of the Dawn mission, where it is recording cosmic rays in order to refine its earlier measurements of Ceres’ underground environment. In order to conduct these readings, the probe has been placed through an intricate set of maneuvers designed to shift its orbit around Ceres. Towards the end of April, this placed the probe in a position directly between the Sun and Ceres.
Based on previous data collected by ground-based telescopes and spacecraft that have viewed planetary bodies at opposition, the Dawn team predicted that Ceres would appear brighter from this vantage point. But rather than simply providing for some beautiful images of Ceres’ surface, the pictures are expected to reveal new details of the surface that are not discernible by visual inspection.
For more than two years now, the Dawn probe has been observing Ceres from a range of illumination angles that exceed those made of just about any other body in the Solar System. These has provided scientists with the opportunity to gain new insights into its surface features, properties, and the forces which shape it. Such observations will come in very handy as they continue to probe Ceres’ surface for hints of what lies beneath.
For years, scientists have been of the opinion that Ceres’ harbors an interior ocean that could support life. In fact, the Dawn probe has already gathered spectral data that hinted at the presence of organic molecules on the surface, which were reasoned to have been kicked up when a meteor impacted the surface. Characterizing the surface and subsurface environments will help determine if this astronomical body really could support life.
At present, the Dawn probe is maintaining an elliptical orbit that is taking it farther away from Ceres. As of May 11th, NASA reported that the probe was in good health and functioning well, despite the malfunction that took place in April where it’s third reaction wheel failed. The Dawn mission has already been extended, and it is expected to operate around Ceres until 2017.
Human-kind has a long history of looking up at the stars and seeing figures and faces. In fact, there’s a word for recognizing faces in natural objects: pareidolia. But this must be the first time someone has recognized Bart Simpson’s face on an object in space.
Researchers studying landslides on the dwarf planet Ceres noticed a pattern that resembles the cartoon character. The researchers, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, are studying massive landslides that occur on the surface of the icy dwarf. Their findings are reinforcing the idea that Ceres has significant quantities of frozen water.
In a new paper in the journal Nature Geoscience, the team of scientists, led by Georgia Tech Assistant Professor and Dawn Science Team Associate Britney Schmidt, examined the surface of Ceres looking for morphologies that resemble landslides here on Earth.
Research shows us that Ceres probably has a subsurface shell that is rich with water-ice. That shell is covered by a layer of silicates. Close examination of the type, and distribution, of landslides at different latitudes adds more evidence to the sub-surface ice theory.
Ceres is pretty big. At 945 km in diameter, it’s the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It’s big enough to be rounded by its own gravity, and it actually comprises about one third of the mass of the entire asteroid belt.
The team used observations from the Dawn Framing Camera to identify three types of landslides on Ceres’ surface:
Type 1 are large, rounded features similar to glacier features in the Earth’s Arctic region. These are found mostly at high latitudes on Ceres, which is where most of the ice probably is.
Type 2 are the most common. They are thinner and longer than Type 1, and look like terrestrial avalanche deposits. They’re found mostly at mid-latitudes on Ceres. The researchers behind the study thought one of them looked like Bart Simpson’s face.
Type 3 occur mostly at low latitudes near Ceres’ equator. These are always found coming from large impact craters, and probably formed when impacts melted the sub-surface ice.
The authors of the study say that finding larger landslides further away from the equator is significant, because that’s where most of the ice is.
“Landslides cover more area in the poles than at the equator, but most surface processes generally don’t care about latitude,” said Schmidt, a faculty member in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “That’s one reason why we think it’s ice affecting the flow processes. There’s no other good way to explain why the poles have huge, thick landslides; mid-latitudes have a mixture of sheeted and thick landslides; and low latitudes have just a few.”
Key to understanding these results is the fact that these types of processes have only been observed before on Earth and Mars. Earth, obviously, has water and ice in great abundance, and Mars has large quantities of sub-surface ice as well. “It’s just kind of fun that we see features on this small planet that remind us of those on the big planets, like Earth and Mars,” Schmidt said. “It seems more and more that Ceres is our innermost icy world.”
“These landslides offer us the opportunity to understand what’s happening in the upper few kilometers of Ceres,” said Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Heather Chilton, a co-author on the paper. “That’s a sweet spot between information about the upper meter or so provided by the GRaND (Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector) and VIR (Visible and Infrared Spectrometer) instrument data, and the tens of kilometers-deep structure elucidated by crater studies.”
It’s not just the presence of these landslides, but the frequency of them, that upholds the icy-mantle idea on Ceres. The study showed that 20% to 30% of craters on Ceres larger than 10 km have some type of landslide. The researchers say that upper layers of Ceres’ could be up to 50% ice by volume.
Sometimes they see it, sometimes they don’t. That’s why scientists have never been completely sure if Ceres has an atmosphere or not. But now data from the Dawn spacecraft — in orbit of Ceres — confirms the dwarf planet really does have a very weak atmosphere, but it comes and goes.
The on-again-off-again nature of Ceres’ atmosphere appears to be linked to solar activity. When energetic particles from the Sun hit exposed ice within the craters on Ceres, the ice can sublimate and create an “exosphere” that lasts for a week or so.
Michaela Villarreal from UCLA, lead author of the new study, and her team wrote in their paper that the “atmosphere appeared shortly after the passage of a large enhancement in the local flux of high-energy solar protons,” and explained that when energetic particles from the Sun hit exposed ice and ice near the surface of the dwarf planet, it transfers energy to the water molecules as they collide. This frees the water molecules from the ground, allowing them to escape and create a tenuous atmosphere.
A process like this could also be taking place on the Moon, and is likely similar to the process similar to what takes place on comets.
“Our results also have implications for other airless, water-rich bodies of the solar system, including the polar regions of the moon and some asteroids,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, also at UCLA. “Atmospheric releases might be expected from their surfaces, too, when solar activity erupts.”
There have been hints of an atmosphere at Ceres since the early 1990’s. In 1991, the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite detected hydroxyl emission from Ceres, but not in 1990. Then, in 2007, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope searched for a hydroxide emission, but came up empty. The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory detected water vapor as a possible weak atmosphere, on three occasions, but did not on a fourth attempt.
The Dawn spacecraft itself saw evidence of a transient atmosphere when it arrived at Ceres in March 2015, with data from its Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector instrument. It also has found ample evidence for water in the form of ice, found just underground at higher latitudes, where temperatures are lower. Ice has been detected directly at the small bright crater called Oxo and in at least one of the craters that are persistently in shadow in the northern hemisphere. Other research has suggested that persistently shadowed craters are likely to harbor ice. Additionally, the shapes of craters and other features are consistent with significant water-ice content in the crust.
The team’s research shows the atmosphere doesn’t necessarily show up when Ceres is close to the Sun or when sunlight hits the ice directly, but from energetic particles released by the Sun when its activity level is high. For example, the best detections of Ceres’ atmosphere did not occur at its closest approach to the Sun.
Also, the times where no atmosphere was detected coincided with lower solar activity, so the researchers say this suggests that solar activity, rather than Ceres’ proximity to the Sun, is a more important factor in generating an exosphere.
Ceres actually is now getting closer to the Sun. However, since the Sun appears to be in a very quiet period, Villarreal, Russell and team predict an atmosphere won’t show up, that the dwarf planet will have little to no atmosphere for some time. However, they said both Dawn and other observatories should keep an eye on what’s happening at Ceres.
The bright regions on the dwarf planet Ceres have been some of the most talked about features in planetary science in recent years. While data from the Dawn spacecraft has shown these bright areas are salt deposits (alas, not lights of an alien city), the question remained of how these salts reached the surface.
Researchers with the Dawn mission say they have now thoroughly investigated the complex geological structures in Occator crater, the region with the brightest regions on Ceres. The scientists conclude that a bright dome-like feature called Cerealia Facula is the remnant of a cryovolcano — an ice volcano — that repeatedly and relatively recently spewed salty ice from within Ceres up to the surface.
“The age and appearance of the material surrounding the bright dome indicate that Cerealia Facula was formed by a recurring, eruptive process, which also hurled material into more outward regions of the central pit,” said Andreas Nathues, a Dawn scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. “A single eruptive event is rather unlikely.”
Occator crater located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres measures 92 kilometers (57 miles) in diameter. In its center is a pit with a diameter of about 11 kilometers (7 miles). On some parts of its edges, jagged mountains and steep slopes rise up to 750 meters (820 yards) high. Within the pit a bright dome formed. It has a diameter of 3 km (1.8 miles), is 400 meters (437 yards) high, with prominent fractures.
In analyzing images from Dawn’s Framing Camera, Nathues and his team deduced that the central pit is a remnant of a former central mountain, formed from the impact that created Occator Crater about 34 million years ago. But with a method for estimating the age of a planet’s surface – called crater counting — the science team could determine the dome of bright material is only about four million years old.
This suggests, the team said, that Occator crater has been the scene of eruptive outbursts of subsurface brine over a long period and until almost recently.
Jupiter’s moons Callisto and Ganymede show similar types of domes, and researchers interpret them as signs of cryovolcanism. While Ceres is too far from the Sun to be warm enough for regular volcanic activity, it very likely has harbored cryovolcanic activity, and it may even be active today.
Images from the Hubble Space Telescope taken more than a decade ago hinted at the bright spots in Occator Crater, but as the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres in 2015, new images showed the bright areas almost shining like “cosmic beacons, like interplanetary lighthouses drawing us forth,” as described by Marc Rayman, the chief engineer and mission director for Dawn, in an interview with me last year.
Dawn scientist had previously determined the bright areas were salts left over from subsurface briny water that had made its way to the surface, and in the vacuum of space, the water sublimated away, leaving behind the dissolved salts. These salts were determined to be sodium carbonate and ammonium chloride.
But don’t call these bright areas “spots,” said Rayman. “Some of these bright areas are miles across,” he said, “and just as if you were standing on salt flats on Earth that were several thousand acres, you wouldn’t say, ‘I’m standing on a spot.’ You are standing on a big area. But just to see the distribution of this material in the Dawn images shows there is something complex going on there.”
It is currently unknown if the region in Occator Crater is active, but there are hints it is, at least at a low level.
In 2014 the Herschel spacecraft detected water vapor above Occator, and images from Dawn’s cameras of the crater show a ‘haze’ when imaged at certain angles, and this has been explained as the sublimation of water.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been poking around Ceres since it first established orbit in March of 2015. In that time, the mission has sent back a steam of images of the minor planet, and with a level of resolution that was previously impossible. Because of this, a lot of interesting revelations have been made about Ceres’ composition and surface features (like its many “bright spots“).
In what is sure to be the most surprising find yet, the Dawn spacecraft has revealed that Ceres may actually possess the ingredients for life. Using data from the Dawn spacecraft’s Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS), an international team of scientists has confirmed the existence of organic molecules on Ceres – a find which could indicate that it has conditions favorable to life.
These findings – which were detailed in a study titled “Localized aliphatic organic material on the surface of Ceres” – appeared in the Feb. 17th, 2017, issue of Science. For the sake of their study, the international team of researchers – which was led by Maria Cristina de Sanctis from the National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome, Italy – showed how Dawn sensor data pointed towards the presence of aliphatic compounds on the surface.
Aliphatics are a type of organic compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. The least complex aliphatic is methane, which has been detected in many locations across the Solar System – including in the Martian atmosphere and in both liquid and gaseous form on Saturn’s moon Titan.
From their study, Dr. de Sanctis and her colleagues determined that spectral data obtained by the VIMS instrument corresponded to the presence of these hydrocarbons in a region outside of the Ernutet crater. This crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres, measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter. The aliphatic compounds which were detected were localized in a roughly 1000 square kilometers region around it.
The team ruled out the possibility that these organic molecules were deposited from an external source – such as a comet or carbonaceous chondrite asteroid. While both have been shown to contain organic molecules in their interior in the past, the largest concentrations on Ceres were distributed discontinuously across the southwest floor and rim of the Ernutet crater and onto an older, highly degraded crater.
In addition, other organic-rich areas were spotted being are scattered to the northwest of the crater. As Dr. Maria Cristina De Sanctis told Universe Today via email:
“The composition that we see on Ceres is similar to some meteorites that has organics and thus we searched for this material. We considered both endogenous and exogenous origin, but the last one seems less likely due to several reasons including the larger abundance observed on Ceres with respect the meteorites.”
Instead, they considered the possibility that they organic molecules were endogenous in origin. In the past, surveys have shown evidence of hydrothermal activity on Ceres, which included signs of surface renewal and fluid mobility. Combined with other surveys that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts, this all points towards Ceres having an environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.
“The overall composition of Ceres can favor the pre-biotic chemistry,” said De Sanctis. “Ceres has water ice and minerals (carbonates and phyllosilicates) derived from pervasive aqueous alteration of rocks. It has also material that we think is formed in hydrothermal environments. All these information indicate condition not hostel to biotic molecules.”
These findings are certainly significant in helping to determine if life could exist on Ceres – in a way that is similar to Europa and Enceladus, locked away beneath its icy mantle. But given that Ceres is believed to have originated 4.5 billion years ago (when the Solar System was still in the process of formation), this study is also significant in that it can shed light on the origin, evolution, and distribution of organic life in our the Solar System.