When Sicilian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi spotted Ceres in 1801, he thought it was a planet. Astronomers didn’t know about asteroids at that time. Now we know there’s an enormous quantity of them, primarily residing in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Ceres is about 1,000 km in diameter and accounts for a third of the mass in the main asteroid belt. It dwarfs most of the other bodies in the belt. Now we know that it’s a planet—albeit a dwarf one—even though its neighbours are mostly asteroids.
But what’s a dwarf planet doing in the asteroid belt?
A new and thorough analysis of high-resolution images and data from NASA’s Dawn mission have now provided fresh insights into the dwarf planet Ceres, with intriguing evidence that Ceres has a global subsurface salty ocean, and has been geologically active in the recent past.
In 1802, German astronomer Heinrich Olbers observed what he thought was a planet within the Main Asteroid Belt. In time, astronomers would come to name this body Pallas, an alternate name for the Greek warrior goddess Athena. The subsequent discovery of many more asteroids in the Main Belt would lead to Pallas being reclassified as a large asteroid, the third-largest in the Belt after Ceres and Vesta.
For centuries, astronomers have sought to get a better look at Pallas to learn more about its size, shape, and composition. As of the turn of the century, astronomers had come to conclude that it was an oblate spheroid (an elongated sphere). Thanks to a new study by an international team, the first detailed images of Pallas have finally been taken, which reveal that its shape is more akin to a “golf ball” – i.e. heavily dimpled.
Welcome back to our series on Settling 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.
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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.
In March of 2015, NASA’s Dawn mission arrived around Ceres, a protoplanet that is the largest object in the Asteroid Belt. Along with Vesta, the Dawn mission seeks to characterize the conditions and processes of the early Solar System by studying some of its oldest objects. One thing Dawn has determined since its arrival is that water-bearing minerals are widespread on Ceres, an indication that the protoplanet once had a global ocean.
Naturally, this has raised many questions, such as what happened to this ocean, and could Ceres still have water today? Towards this end, the Dawn mission team recently conducted two studies that shed some light on these questions. Whereas the former used gravity measurements to characterize the interior of the protoplanet, the latter sought to determine its interior structure by studying its topography.
Together, the team relied on gravity measurements of the protoplanet, which the Dawn probe has been collecting since it established orbit around Ceres. Using the Deep Space Network to track small changes in the spacecraft’s orbit, Ermakov and his colleagues were able to conduct shape and gravity data measurements of Ceres to determine the internal structure and composition.
What they found was that Ceres shows signs of being geologically active; if not today, than certainly in the recent past. This is indicated by the presence of three craters – Occator, Kerwan and Yalode – and Ceres’ single tall mountain, Ahuna Mons. All of these are associated with “gravity anomalies”, which refers to discrepancies between the way scientists have modeled Ceres’ gravity and what Dawn observed in these four locations.
The team concluded that these four features and other outstanding geological formations, are therefore indications of cryovolcanism or subsurface structures. What’s more, they determined that the crust’s density was relatively low, being closer to that of ice than solid rock. This, however, was inconsistent with a previous study performed by Dawn guest investigator Michael Bland of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Bland’s study, which was published in Nature Geoscience back in 2016, indicated that ice is not likely to be the dominant component of Ceres strong crust, on a count of it being too soft. Naturally, this raises the question of how the crust could be light as ice in terms of density, but also much stronger. To answer this, the second team attempted to model how Ceres’ surface evolved over time.
Their study, titled “The Interior Structure of Ceres as Revealed by Surface Topography and Gravity“, was published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters. Led by Roger Fu, an assistant professor with the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT, this team consisted of members from Virginia Tech, Caltech, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the US Geological Survey, and the INAF.
Together, they investigated the strength and composition of Ceres’ crust and deeper interior by studying the dwarf planet’s topography. By modeling how the protoplanet’s crust flows, Fu and colleagues determined that it is likely a mixture of ice, salts, rock, and likely clathrate hydrate. This type of structure, which is composed of a gas molecule surrounded by water molecules, is 100 to 1,000 times stronger than water ice.
This high-strength crust, they theorize, could rest on a softer layer that contains some liquid. This would have allowed Ceres’ topography to deform over time, smoothing down features that were once more pronounced. It would also account for its possible ancient ocean, which would have frozen and become bound up with the crust. Nevertheless, some of its water would still exist in a liquid state underneath the surface.
This theory is consistent with several thermal evolution models which were published before the Dawn mission arrived at Ceres. These models contend that Ceres’ interior contains liquid water, similar to what has been found on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. But in Ceres’ case, this liquid could be what is left over from its ancient ocean rather than the result of present-day geological activity in the interior.
Taken together, these studies indicate that Ceres has had a long and turbulent history. While the first study found that Ceres’ crust is a mixture of ice, salts and hydrated materials – which represents most of its ancient ocean – the second study suggests there is a softer layer beneath Ceres’ rigid surface crust, which could be the signature of residual liquid left over from the ocean.
As Julie Castillo-Rogez, the Dawn project scientist at JPL and a co-author on both studies, explained, “More and more, we are learning that Ceres is a complex, dynamic world that may have hosted a lot of liquid water in the past, and may still have some underground.”
On October 19, 2017, NASA announced that the Dawn mission would be extended until its fuel runs out, which is expected to happen in the latter half of 2018. This extension means that the Dawn probe will be in orbit around Ceres as it goes through perihelion in April 2018. At this time, surface ice will start to evaporate to form a transient atmosphere around the body.
During this period and long after, the spacecraft is likely to remain in a stable orbit around Ceres, where it will continue to send back information on this protoplanet/large asteroid. What it teaches us will also go a long way towards informing our understanding of the early Solar System and how it evolved over the past few billion years.
In the future, it is possible that a mission will be sent to Ceres that is capable of landing on its surface and exploring its topography directly. With any luck, future missions will also be able to explore the interior of Ceres, and other “ocean worlds” like Europa and Enceladus, and find out what lurks beneath their icy surfaces!