Ceres Rolled Over at Some Point in the Past

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.

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Ceres Has Even More Organic Molecules on it Than Previously Thought

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.

A new analysis of Dawn mission data suggests those organics could be more plentiful than originally thought. Credit: NASA/Rendering by Hannah Kaplan

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.”

Enhanced color-composite image, made with data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows the area around Ernutet crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Artist’s rendition of the Dawn mission on approach to the protoplanet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

Dawn spacecraft data show a region around the Ernutet crater where organic concentrations have been discovered (labeled “a” through “f”). The color coding shows the strength of the organics absorption band, with warmer colors indicating the highest concentrations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Further Reading: Brown University, Geophysical Research Letters

Wow! Asteroid/Dwarf Planet Ceres Once had an Ocean?

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.

The first study, titled “Constraints on Ceres’ internal structure and evolution from its shape and gravity measured by the Dawn spacecraft“, was recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Led by Anton Ermakov, a postdoctoral researcher at JPL, the team also consisted of researchers from the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the German Aerospace Center, Columbia University, UCLA and MIT.

Ceres. as imaged by the NASA Dawn probe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Gravity measurements of Ceres, which provided  hints about its internal structure. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Diagram showing a possible internal structure of Ceres. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/A. Feild

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!

Further Reading: NASA

Dawn Probe Finds Evidence of Subsurface Ice on Vesta

In 2011, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft established orbit around the large asteroid (aka. planetoid) known as Vesta. Over the course of the next 14 months, the probe conducted detailed studies of Vesta’s surface with its suite of scientific instruments. These findings revealed much about the planetoid’s history, its surface features, and its structure – which is believed to be differentiated, like the rocky planets.

In addition, the probe collected vital information on Vesta’s ice content. After spending the past three years sifting through the probe’s data, a team of scientists has produced a new study that indicates the possibility of subsurface ice. These findings could have implications when it comes to our understanding of how Solar bodies formed and how water was historically transported throughout the Solar System.

Their study, titled “Orbital Bistatic Radar Observations of Asteroid Vesta by the Dawn Mission“, was recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Led by Elizabeth Palmer, a graduate student from Western Michigan University, the team relied on data obtained by the communications antenna aboard the Dawn spacecraft to conduct the first orbital bistatic radar (BSR) observation of Vesta.

Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This antenna – the High-Gain telecommunications Antenna (HGA) – transmitted X-band radio waves during its orbit of Vesta to the Deep Space Network (DSN) antenna on Earth. During the majority of the mission, Dawn’s orbit was designed to ensure that the HGA was in the line of sight with ground stations on Earth. However, during occultations – when the probe passed behind Vesta for 5 to 33 minutes at a time – the probe was out of this line of sight.

Nevertheless, the antenna was continuously transmitting telemetry data, which caused the HGA-transmitted radar waves to be reflected off of Vesta’s surface. This technique, known as bistatic radar (BSR) observations has been used in the past to study the surfaces of terrestrial bodies like Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and the comet 67P/CG.

But as Palmer explained, using this technique to study a body like Vesta was a first for astronomers:

“This is the first time that a bistatic radar experiment was conducted in orbit around a small body, so this brought several unique challenges compared to the same experiment being done at large bodies like the Moon or Mars. For example, because the gravity field around Vesta is much weaker than Mars, the Dawn spacecraft does not have to orbit at a very high speed to maintain its distance from the surface. The orbital speed of the spacecraft becomes important, though, because the faster the orbit, the more the frequency of the ‘surface echo’ gets changed (Doppler shifted) compared to the frequency of the ‘direct signal’ (which is the unimpeded radio signal that travels directly from Dawn’s HGA to Earth’s Deep Space Network antennas without grazing Vesta’s surface). Researchers can tell the difference between a ‘surface echo’ and the ‘direct signal’ by their difference in frequency—so with Dawn’s slower orbital speed around Vesta, this frequency difference was very small, and required more time for us to process the BSR data and isolate the ‘surface echoes’ to measure their strength.”

This high-res geological map of Vesta is derived from Dawn spacecraft data. Brown colors represent the oldest, most heavily cratered surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

By studying the reflected BSR waves, Palmer and her team were able to gain valuable information from Vesta’s surface. From this, they observed significant differences in surface radar reflectivity. But unlike the Moon, these variations in surface roughness could not be explained by cratering alone and was likely due to the existence of ground-ice. As Palmer explained:

“We found that this was the result of differences in the roughness of the surface at the scale of a few inches.  Stronger surface echoes indicate smoother surfaces, while weaker surface echoes have bounced off of rougher surfaces. When we compared our surface roughness map of Vesta with a map of subsurface hydrogen concentrations—which was measured by Dawn scientists using the Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) on the spacecraft—we found that extensive smoother areas overlapped areas that also had heightened hydrogen concentrations!”

In the end, Palmer and her colleagues concluded that the presence of buried ice (past and/or present) on Vesta was responsible for parts of the surface being smoother than others. Basically, whenever an impact happened on the surface, it transferred a great deal of energy to the subsurface. If buried ice was present there, it would be melted by the impact event, flow to the surface along impact-generated fractures, and then freeze in place.

Much in the same way that moon’s like Europa, Ganymede and Titania experience surface renewal because of the way cryovolcanism causes liquid water to reach the surface (where it refreezes), the presence of subsurface ice would cause parts of Vesta’ surface to be smoothed out over time. This would ultimately lead to the kinds of uneven terrain that Palmer and her colleagues witnessed.

The planetoid Vesta, which was studied by the Dawn probe between July 2011 and September 2012. Credit: NASA

This theory is supported by the large concentrations of hydrogen that were detected over smoother terrains that measure hundreds of square kilometers. It is also consistent with geomorphological evidence obtained from the Dawn Framing Camera images, which showed signs of of transient water flow over Vesta’s surface. This study also contradicted some previously-held assumptions about Vesta.

As Palmer noted, this could also have implications as far as our understanding of the history and evolution of the Solar System is concerned:

Asteroid Vesta was expected to have depleted any water content long ago through global melting, differentiation, and extensive regolith gardening by impacts from smaller bodies. However, our findings support the idea that buried ice may have existed on Vesta, which is an exciting prospect since Vesta is a protoplanet that represents an early stage in the formation of a planet. The more we learn about where water-ice exists throughout the Solar System, the better we will understand how water was delivered to Earth, and how much was intrinsic to Earth’s interior during the early stages of its formation.”

This work was sponsored by NASA’s Planetary Geology and Geophysics program, a JPL-based effort that focuses on fostering the research of terrestrial-like planets and major satellites in the Solar System. The work was also conducted with the assistance of the USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering as part of an ongoing effort to improve radar and microwave imaging to locate subsurface sources of water on planets and other bodies.

Further Reading: USC, Nature Communications

New Way to Make Plasma Propulsion Lighter and More Efficient

Plasma propulsion is a subject of keen interest to astronomers and space agencies. As a highly-advanced technology that offers considerable fuel-efficiency over conventional chemical rockets, it is currently being used in everything from spacecraft and satellites to exploratory missions. And looking to the future, flowing plasma is also being investigated for more advanced propulsion concepts, as well as magnetic-confined fusion.

However, a common problem with plasma propulsion is the fact that it relies on what is known as a “neutralizer”. This instrument, which allows spacecraft to remain charge-neutral, is an additional drain on power. Luckily, a team of researchers from the University of York and École Polytechnique are investigating a plasma thruster design that would do away with a neutralizer altogether.

A study detailing their research findings – titled “Transient propagation dynamics of flowing plasmas accelerated by radio-frequency electric fields” – was released earlier this month in Physics of Plasmas – a journal published by the American Institute of Physics. Led by Dr. James Dendrick, a physicist from the York Plasma Institute at the University of York, they present a concept for a self-regulating plasma thruster.

A 6 kW Hall thruster in operation at NASA;s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL

Basically, plasma propulsion systems rely on electric power to ionize propellant gas and transform it into plasma (i.e. negatively charged electrons and positively-charged ions). These ions and electrons are then accelerated by engine nozzles to generate thrust and propel a spacecraft. Examples include the Gridded-ion and Hall-effect thruster, both of which are established propulsion technologies.

The Gridden-ion thruster was first tested in the 1960s and 70s as part of the Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT) program. Since then, it has been used by NASA’s Dawn mission, which is currently exploring Ceres in the Main Asteroid Belt. And in the future, the ESA and JAXA plan to use Gridded-iron thrusters to propel their BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

Similarly, Hall-effect thrusters have been investigated since the 1960s by both NASA and the Soviet space programs. They were first used as part of the ESA’s Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology-1 (SMART-1) mission. This mission, which launched in 2003 and crashed into the lunar surface three years later, was the first ESA mission to go to the Moon.

As noted, spacecraft that use these thrusters all require a neutralizer to ensure that they remain “charge-neutral”. This is necessary since conventional plasma thrusters generate more positively-charged particles than they do negatively-charged ones. As such, neutralizers inject electrons (which carry a negative charge) in order to maintain the balance between positive and negative ions.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft with its ion propulsion system approaching Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

As you might suspect, these electrons are generated by the spacecraft’s electrical power systems, which means that the neutralizer is an additional drain on power. The addition of this component also means that the propulsion system itself will have to be larger and heavier. To address this, the York/École Polytechnique team proposed a design for a plasma thruster that can remain charge neutral on its own.

Known as the Neptune engine, this concept was first demonstrated in 2014 by Dmytro Rafalskyi and Ane Aanesland, two researchers from the École Polytechnique’s Laboratory of Plasma Physics (LPP) and co-authors on the recent paper. As they demonstrated, the concept builds upon the technology used to create gridded-ion thrusters, but manages to generate exhaust that contains comparable amounts of positively and negatively charged ions.

As they explain in the course of their study:

“Its design is based on the principle of plasma acceleration, whereby the coincident extraction of ions and electrons is achieved by applying an oscillating electrical field to the gridded acceleration optics. In traditional gridded-ion thrusters, ions are accelerated using a designated voltage source to apply a direct-current (dc) electric field between the extraction grids. In this work, a dc self-bias voltage is formed when radio-frequency (rf) power is coupled to the extraction grids due to the difference in the area of the powered and grounded surfaces in contact with the plasma.”
The hall-effect thruster used by the SMART-1 mission, which relied on xenon as its reaction mass. Copyright: ESA

In short, the thruster creates exhaust that is effectively charge-neutral through the application of radio waves. This has the same effect of adding an electrical field to the thrust, and effectively removes the need for a neutralizer. As their study found, the Neptune thruster is also capable of generating thrust that is comparable to a conventional ion thruster.

To advance the technology even further, they teamed up with James Dedrick and Andrew Gibson from the York Plasma Institute to study how the thruster would work under different conditions. With Dedrick and Gibson on board, they began to study how the plasma beam might interact with space and whether this would affect its balanced charge.

What they found was that the engine’s exhaust beam played a large role in keeping the beam neutral, where the propagation of electrons after they are introduced at the extraction grids acts to compensate for space-charge in the plasma beam. As they state in their study:

“[P]hase-resolved optical emission spectroscopy has been applied in combination with electrical measurements (ion and electron energy distribution functions, ion and electron currents, and beam potential) to study the transient propagation of energetic electrons in a flowing plasma generated by an rf self-bias driven plasma thruster. The results suggest that the propagation of electrons during the interval of sheath collapse at the extraction grids acts to compensate space-charge in the plasma beam.”

Naturally, they also emphasize that further testing will be needed before a Neptune thruster can ever be used. But the results are encouraging, since they offer up the possibility of ion thrusters that are lighter and smaller, which would allow for spacecraft that are even more compact and energy-efficient. For space agencies looking to explore the Solar System (and beyond) on a budget, such technology is nothing if not desirable!

Further Reading: Physics of Plasmas, AIP

Ceres Prank Lands Bart Simpson In Detention For Eternity

Do you see Bart Simpson's face on these surface features on Ceres? Researchers studying the surface of the dwarf planet for evidence of the presence of ice do. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, taken by Dawn Framing Camera

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.

Dwarf planet Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, taken by Dawn Framing Camera
Dwarf planet Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, taken by Dawn Framing Camera

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.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, taken by Dawn Framing Camera
Type 1 landslides on Ceres are large and occur at higher latitudes. Image: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, taken by Dawn Framing Camera

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.
Type 3 landslides on Ceres occur at low latitudes at large craters, and form when ice is melted by impacts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, taken by Dawn Framing Camera
Type 3 landslides on Ceres occur at low latitudes at large craters, and form when ice is melted by impacts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, taken by Dawn Framing Camera

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.

Ceres Provides First Detection Of Life’s Building Blocks In Asteroid Belt

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.

Enhanced color-composite image from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, showing the area around Ernutet Crater on Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

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.”

Dawn spacecraft data, showing the organics absorption band (warmer colors indicate highest concentrations). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Other members of the research team include researchers from the department of Earth Planetary and Space Sciences at the University of California, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee, the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Further Reading: ScienceMag, SwRI

Ice, Ice Everywhere, says New Study on Ceres

As the single-largest body in the Asteroid Belt, Ceres has long been a source of fascination to astronomers. In addition to being the only asteroid large enough to become rounded under its own gravity, it is also the only minor planet to be found within the orbit of Neptune. And with the arrival of the Dawn probe around Ceres in March of 2015, we have been treated to a steady stream of scientific finds about this protoplanet.

The latest find, which has come as something of a surprise, has to do with the composition of the planet. Contrary to what was previously suspected, new evidence shows that Ceres has large deposits of water ice near its surface. This and other evidence suggests that beneath its rocky, icy surface, Ceres has deposits of liquid water that could have played a major role in its evolution.

This evidence were presented at the 2016 American Geophysical Union meeting, which kicked off on Monday, Dec. 12th, in San Fransisco. Amid the thousands of seminars that detailed the biggest findings made during the past year in the fields of space and Earth science – which included updates from the Curiosity mission – members of the Dawn mission team shared the results of their research, which were recently published in Science.

This graphic shows a theoretical path of a water molecule on Ceres. Some water molecules fall into cold, dark craters called "cold traps," where very little of the ice turns into vapor, even over the course of a billion years. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Graphic showing a theoretical path of a water molecule on Ceres. Some water molecules fall into cold, dark craters called “cold traps,” where very little of the ice turns into vapor, even over the course of a billion years. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Titled “Extensive water ice within Ceres’ aqueously altered regolith: Evidence from nuclear spectroscopy“, the mission team’s study details how data gathered by Dawn’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) determined the concentrations of hydrogen, iron and potassium in Ceres crust. In so doing, it was able to place constraints on the planet’s ice content, and how the surface was likely altered by liquid water in Ceres’ interior.

In short, the GRaND instrument detected high levels of hydrogen in Ceres’ uppermost structure (10% by weight), which appeared most prominently around the mid-latitudes. These readings were consistent with broad expanses of water ice. The GRaND data also showed that rather than consisting of a solid ice layer, the ice was likely to take the form of a porous mixture of rocky materials (in which ice fills the pores).

Previously, ice was thought to only exist within certain cratered regions on Ceres, and was thought to be the result of impacts that deposited water ice over the course of Ceres’ long history. But as Thomas Prettyman – the principal investigator of Dawn’s GRaND instrument – said in a NASA press release, scientists are now rethinking this position:

“On Ceres, ice is not just localized to a few craters. It’s everywhere, and nearer to the surface with higher latitudes. These results confirm predictions made nearly three decades ago that ice can survive for billions of years just beneath the surface of Ceres. The evidence strengthens the case for the presence of near-surface water ice on other main belt asteroids.”

The concentrations of iron, potassium and carbon detected by the GRaND instrument also supports the theory that Ceres’ surface was altered by liquid water in the interior. Basically, scientists theorize that the decay of radioactive elements within Ceres created enough heat to cause the protoplanet’s structure to differentiate between a rocky interior and icy outer shell – which also allowed minerals like those observed to be deposited in the surface.

Similarly, a second study produced by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar Research examined hundreds of permanently-shadowed craters located in Ceres’ northern hemisphere. According to this study, which appeared recently in Nature Astronomy, these craters are “cold traps”, where temperatures drop to less than 11o K (-163 °C; -260 °F), thus preventing all but the tiniest amounts of ice from turning into vapor and escaping.

Within ten of these craters, the researcher team found deposits of bright material, reminiscent to what Dawn spotted in the Occator Crater. And in one that was partially sunlit, Dawn’s infrared mapping spectrometer confirmed the presence of ice. This suggests that water ice is being stored in Ceres darker craters in a way that is similar to what has been observed around the polar regions of both Mercury and the Moon.

Where this water came from (i.e. whether or not it was deposited by meteors) remains something of a mystery. But regardless, it shows that water molecules on Ceres could be moving from warmer mid-latitudes to the colder, darker polar regions. This lends further weight to the theory that Ceres might have a tenuous water vapor atmosphere, which was suggested back in 2012-13 based on evidence obtained by the Herschel Space Observatory.

f images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows a crater on Ceres that is partly in shadow all the time. Such craters are called "cold traps." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
f images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows a crater on Ceres that is partly in shadow all the time. Such craters are called “cold traps.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

All of this adds up to Ceres being a watery and geologically active protoplanet, one which could hold clues as to how life existed billions of years ago. As Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission, also explained in the NASA press release:

“These studies support the idea that ice separated from rock early in Ceres’ history, forming an ice-rich crustal layer, and that ice has remained near the surface over the history of the solar system. By finding bodies that were water-rich in the distant past, we can discover clues as to where life may have existed in the early solar system.”

Back in July Dawn began its extended mission phase, which consists of it conducting several more orbits of Ceres. At present, it is flying in an elliptical orbit at a distance of more than 7,200 km (4,500 mi) from the protoplanet. The spacecraft is expected to operate until 2017, remaining a perpetual satellite of Ceres until the end.

Further Reading: NASA, IfA, PSI

How Long Does it Take to get to the Asteroid Belt?

It's long been thought that a giant asteroid, which broke up long ago in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually made its way to Earth and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. New studies say that the dinosaurs may have been facing extinction before the asteroid strike, and that mammals were already on the rise. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt. Consisting of millions of objects that range in size from hundreds of kilometers in diameter (like Ceres and Vesta) to one kilometer or more, the Asteroid Belt has long been a source of fascination for astronomers. Initially, they wondered why the many objects that make it up did not come together to form a planet. But more recently, human beings have been eyeing the Asteroid Belt for other purposes.

Whereas most of our efforts are focused on research – in the hopes of shedding additional light on the history of the Solar System – others are looking to tap for its considerable wealth. With enough resources to last us indefinitely, there are many who want to begin mining it as soon as possible. Because of this, knowing exactly how long it would take for spaceships to get there and back is becoming a priority.

Distance from Earth:

The distance between the Asteroid Belt and Earth varies considerably depending on where we measure to. Based on its average distance from the Sun, the distance between Earth and the edge of the Belt that is closest to it can be said to be between 1.2 to 2.2 AUs, or 179.5 and 329 million km (111.5 and 204.43 million mi).

The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

However, at any given time, part of the Asteroid Belt will be on the opposite side of the Sun, relative to Earth. From this vantage point, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Blt ranges from 3.2 and 4.2 AU – 478.7 to 628.3 million km (297.45 to 390.4 million mi). To put that in perspective, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges between being slightly more than the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1 AU), to being the same as the distance between Earth and Jupiter (4.2 AU) when they are at their closest.

But of course, for reasons of fuel economy and time, asteroid miners and exploration missions are not about to take the long way! As such, we can safely assume that the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt when they are at their closest is the only measurement worth considering.

Past Missions:

The Asteroid Belt is so thinly populated that several unmanned spacecraft have been able to move through it on their way to the outer Solar System. In more recent years, missions to study larger Asteroid Belt objects have also used this to their advantage, navigating between the smaller objects to rendezvous with bodies like Ceres and Vesta. In fact, due to the low density of materials within the Belt, the odds of a probe running into an asteroid are now estimated at less than one in a billion.

The first spacecraft to make a journey through the asteroid belt was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which entered the region on July 16th, 1972 (a journey of 135 days). As part of its mission to Jupiter, the craft successfully navigated through the Belt and conducted a flyby of Jupiter (in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

At the time, there were concerns that the debris would pose a hazard to the Pioneer 10 space probe. But since that mission, 11 additional spacecraft have passed through the Asteroid Belt without incident. These included Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, NEAR, Cassini, Stardust, New Horizons, the ESA’s Rosetta, and most recently, the Dawn spacecraft.

For the most part, these missions were part of missions to the outer Solar System, where opportunities to photograph and study asteroids were brief. Only the Dawn, NEAR and JAXA’s Hayabusa missions have studied asteroids for a protracted period in orbit and at the surface. Dawn explored Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012, and is currently orbiting Ceres (and sending back gravity data on the dwarf planet’s gravity) and is expected to remain there until 2017.

Fastest Mission to Date:

The fastest mission humanity has ever mounted was the New Horizons mission, which was launched from Earth on Jan. 19th, 2006. The mission began with a speedy launch aboard an Atlas V rocket, which accelerated it to a a speed of about 16.26 km per second (58,536 km/h; 36,373 mph). At this speed, the probe reached the Asteroid Belt by the following summer, and made a close approach to the tiny asteroid 132524 APL by June 13th, 2006 (145 days after launching).

However, even this pales in comparison to Voyager 1, which was launched on Sept. 5th, 1977 and reached the Asteroid Belt on Dec. 10th, 1977 – a total of 96 days. And then there was the Voyager 2 probe, which launched 15 days after Voyager 1 (on Sept. 20th), but still managed to arrive on the same date – which works out to a total travel time of 81 days.

For Voyager 2, out on the edge of our Solar system, conventional navigation methods don't work too well. Credit: NASA
For Voyager 2, out on the edge of our Solar system, conventional navigation methods don’t work too well. Credit: NASA

Not bad as travel times go. At these speed, a spacecraft could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt, spend several weeks conducting research (or extracting ore), and then make it home in just over six months time. However, one has to take into account that in all these cases, the mission teams did not decelerate the probes to make a rendezvous with any asteroids.

Ergo, a mission to the Asteroid Belt would take longer as the craft would have to slow down to achieve orbital velocity. And they would also need some powerful engines of their own in order to make the trip home. This would drastically alter the size and weight of the spacecraft, which would inevitably mean it would be bigger, slower and a heck of a lot more expensive than anything we’ve sent so far.

Another possibility would be to use ionic propulsion (which is much more fuel efficient) and pick up a gravity assist by conducting a flyby of Mars – which is precisely what the Dawn mission did. However, even with a boost from Mars’ gravity, the Dawn mission still took over three years to reach the asteroid Vesta – launching on Sept. 27th, 2007, and arriving on July 16th, 2011, (a total of 3 years, 9 months, and 19 days). Not exactly good turnaround!

Proposed Future Methods:

A number of possibilities exist that could drastically reduce both travel time and fuel consumption to the Asteroid Belt, many of which are currently being considered for a number of different mission proposals. One possibility is to use spacecraft equipped with nuclear engines, a concept which NASA has been exploring for decades.

The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA
The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

In a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. A Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) rocket involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy, which would then power an electrical engine.

In both cases, the rocket would rely on nuclear fission or fusion to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date. According to NASA estimates, the most sophisticated NTP concept would have a maximum specific impulse of 5000 seconds (50 kN·s/kg).

Using this engine, NASA scientists estimate that it would take a spaceship only 90 days to get to Mars when the planet was at “opposition” – i.e. as close as 55,000,000 km from Earth. Adjusted for a distance of 1.2 AUs, that means that a ship equipped with a NTP/NEC propulsion system could make the trip in about 293 days (about nine months and three weeks). A little slow, but not bad considering the technology exists.

Another proposed method of interstellar travel comes in the form of the Radio Frequency (RF) Resonant Cavity Thruster, also known as the EM Drive. Originally proposed in 2001 by Roger K. Shawyer, a UK scientist who started Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR) to bring it to fruition, this drive is built around the idea that electromagnetic microwave cavities can allow for the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust.

Artist's concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit:
Artist’s concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Center

According to calculations based on the NASA prototype (which yielded a power estimate of 0.4 N/kilowatt), a spacecraft equipped with the EM drive could make the trip to Mars in just ten days. Adjusted for a trip to the Asteroid Belt, so a spacecraft equipped with an EM drive would take an estimated 32.5 days to reach the Asteroid Belt.

Impressive, yes? But of course, that is based on a concept that has yet to be proven. So let’s turn to yet another radical proposal, which is to use ships equipped with an antimatter engine. Created in particle accelerators, antimatter is the most dense fuel you could possibly use. When atoms of matter meet atoms of antimatter, they annihilate each other, releasing an incredible amount of energy in the process.

According to the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which is researching the technology, it would take just 10 milligrams of antimatter to propel a human mission to Mars in 45 days. Based on this estimate, a craft equipped with an antimatter engine and roughly twice as much fuel could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt in roughly 147 days. But of course, the sheer cost of creating antimatter – combined with the fact that an engine based on these principles is still theoretical at this point – makes it a distant prospect.

Basically, getting to the Asteroid Belt takes quite a bit of time, at least when it comes to the concepts we currently have available. Using theoretical propulsion concepts, we are able to cut down on the travel time, but it will take some time (and lots of money) before those concepts are a reality. However, compared to many other proposed missions – such as to Europa and Enceladus – the travel time is shorter, and the dividends quite clear.

As already stated, there are enough resources – in the form of minerals and volatiles – in the Asteroid Belt to last us indefinitely. And, should we someday find a way to cost-effective way to send spacecraft there rapidly, we could tap that wealth and begin to usher in an age of post-scarcity! But as with so many other proposals and mission concepts, it looks like we’ll have to wait for the time being.

We have written many articles about the asteroid belt for Universe Today. Here’s Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, and Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?.

Also, be sure to learn which is the Largest Asteroid in the Solar System, and about the asteroid named after Leonard Nimoy. And here’s 10 Interesting Facts about Asteroids.

We also have many interesting articles about the Dawn spacecraft’s mission to Vesta and Ceres, and asteroid mining.

To learn more, check out NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science Page on asteroids, and the Hubblesite’s News Releases about Asteroids.

Astronomy Cast also some interesting episodes about asteroids, like Episode 55: The Asteroid Belt and Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.

Sources:

How Far is the Asteroid Belt from Earth?

In the 18th century, observations made of all the known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) led astronomers to the realization that there was a pattern in their orbits. Eventually, this led to the Titius–Bode law, which predicted the amount of space that naturally existed between each celestial body that orbited our Sun. In accordance with this law, astronomers noted that there appeared to be a discernible gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Investigations into this gap eventually resulted in astronomers observing several bodies of various size. This led to the creation of the term “asteroid” (Greek for ‘star-like’ or ‘star-shaped’), as well as “Asteroid Belt”, once it became clear just how many there were. Through various methods, astronomers have since confirmed the existence of several million objects between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter. They have also determined, with a certain degree of accuracy, how far it is from our planet.

Structure and Composition:

The Asteroid Belt consists of several large bodies, coupled with millions of smaller size. The larger bodies, such as Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea, account for half of the belt’s total mass, with almost one-third accounted for by Ceres alone. Beyond that, over 200 asteroids that are larger than 100 km in diameter, and 0.7–1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km or more.

The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

It total, the Asteroid Belt’s mass is estimated to be 2.8×1021 to 3.2×1021 kilograms – which is equivalent to about 4% of the Moon’s mass. While most asteroids are composed of rock, a small portion of them contain metals such as iron and nickel. The remaining asteroids are made up of a mix of these, along with carbon-rich materials. Some of the more distant asteroids tend to contain more ices and volatiles, which includes water ice.

Despite the impressive number of objects contained within the belt, the Main Belt’s asteroids are also spread over a very large volume of space. As a result, the average distance between objects is roughly 965,600 km (600,000 miles), meaning that the Main Belt consists largely of empty space. In fact, due to the low density of materials within the Belt, the odds of a probe running into an asteroid are now estimated at less than one in a billion.

The main (or core) population of the asteroid belt is sometimes divided into three zones, which are based on what is known as “Kirkwood gaps”. Named after Daniel Kirkwood, who announced in 1866 the discovery of gaps in the distance of asteroids, these gaps are similar to what is seen with Saturn’s and other gas giants’ systems of rings.

Orbit Around the Sun:

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the belt ranges in distance between 2.2 and 3.2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun – 329 million to 478.7 million km (204.43 million to 297.45 million mi). It is also an estimated 1 AU thick (149.6 million km, or 93 million mi), meaning that it occupies the same amount of distance as what lies between the Earth to the Sun.

The distance of an asteroid from the Sun (its semi-major axis) depends upon its distribution into one of three different zones based on the Belt’s “Kirkwood Gaps”. Zone I lies between the 4:1 resonance and 3:1 resonance Kirkwood gaps, which are roughly 2.06 and 2.5 AUs (3 to 3.74 billion km; 1.86 to 2.3 billion mi) from the Sun, respectively.

Zone II continues from the end of Zone I out to the 5:2 resonance gap, which is 2.82 AU (4.22 billion km; 2.6 mi) from the Sun. Zone III, the outermost section of the Belt, extends from the outer edge of Zone II to the 2:1 resonance gap, located some 3.28 AU (4.9 billion km; 3 billion mi) from the Sun.

Distance from Earth:

The distance between the Asteroid Belt and Earth varies considerably depending on where we measure to. Based on its average distance from the Sun, the distance between Earth and the closest edge of the Belt can be said to be between 1.2 to 2.2 AUs, or 179.5 and 329 million km (111.5 and 204.43 million mi). But of course, at any given time, part of the Asteroid Belt will be on the opposite side of the Sun relative to us as well.

From this vantage point, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges from 3.2 and 4.2 AU – 478.7 to 628.3 million km (297.45 to 390.4 million mi). To put that in perspective, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges from being slightly more than the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1 AU), to being the same as the distance between Earth and Jupiter (4.2 AU) when they are at their closest.

Naturally, any exploration or other kind of mission launched from Earth is going to take the shortest route, unless it is aiming for a specific asteroid. And even then, mission planners will time the launch to ensure that we are closest to the destination. Hence, we can safely use the estimates of 1.2 – 2.2 AU to gauge the distance between us and the Main Belt.

Even so, at its closest, getting to the Asteroid Belt would involve a bit of a hike! In short, it is approximately 179.5 million km (or 111.5 million mi) distant from us at any given time. As such, knowing just how much time and energy it would take to get their and back is going to come in handy if and when we begin mounting crewed missions to the Belt, not to mention the prospect of asteroid mining!

We have written many interesting articles on the Asteroid  Belt here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Asteroid Belt?, Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?, and 10 Interesting Facts about Asteroids.

To learn more, check out NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science Page on asteroids, and the Hubblesite’s News Releases about Asteroids.

Astronomy Cast also some interesting episodes about asteroids, like Episode 55: The Asteroid Belt and Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.

Sources: