NASA Discovers Ice Volcanoes On Dwarf Planet Ceres

NASA’s Dawn space probe recently discovered ice volcanoes on the dwarf planet Ceres, according to a report in Scientific American.

Ceres is located within the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is the only dwarf planet in the inner reaches of the solar system, according to Space.com. The other dwarf planets lie at the far edges of the solar system, in the Kuiper Belt. Ceres is the smallest of the known dwarf planets in our system, but it is the largest object in the Main Asteroid Belt.

Space.com describes Ceres as an oblate spheroid, which means it is rounded but has a rotational bulge at its equator. This makes it unique among the other objects in the asteroid belt. Scientists also believe Ceres has an ocean and possibly an atmosphere.

The discovery of the ice volcanoes provides further evidence that large amounts of water exist on the dwarf planet.

“Observations by NASA’s Ceres-orbiting Dawn spacecraft indicate that ‘ice volcanoes’ have erupted on the dwarf planet in the recent past and that Ceres’ crust is an odd ice-rock mixture that has never been observed before, scientists reported in a series of six new studies published online today (Sept. 1) in the journal Science,” reads the Scientific American article.

“Ceres has been active during its history inside; the interior has been changing, evolving, much like the Earth’s interior changes with time,” Chris Russell, a UCLA professor of geophysics and space physics told Space.com. “It’s in the transition between the smaller asteroids and the Earth, in that it changes, and has changed, over the years from the time that the material initially came together.”

Russell is also lead author of one of the Science papers and co-author of the other five.

The largest ice mountain located on Ceres is named Ahuna Mons. It stands 2.5 miles high, which is a considerable height when considering that Ceres is just under 600 miles in diameter. By comparison, Mount Everest reaches approximately 5.5 miles above sea level, but the Earth has a diameter of nearly 8,000 miles.

“Ahuna Mons resembles the dome-shaped mountains created by volcanism here on Earth, researchers reported in one of the new studies,” reports the Scientific American. “And Dawn team members said they think Ahuna Mons was indeed created by a volcano, but one that spewed out cold, molten ice rather than hot, liquid rock.”

Ottaviano Ruesch, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Space.com they remain uncertain as to exactly what Ceres’ “cryomagma” is comprised of. However, they did suggest it could be a combination of “chlorine salts and water ice.”

According to researchers, Ahuna Mons is a relatively new development on Ceres, though other volcanoes may have previously existed on the dwarf planet.

“Analyses of crater counts suggest that the mountain formed in the last 200 million years or so, study team members said,” the Scientific American reports, adding, “Like the rest of the solar system, Ceres itself formed about 4.56 billion years ago.”

A team led by Debra Buczkowski of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory has identified other “dome-shaped features” that they believe to also be the result of volcanoes and cryovolcanism. Buczkowski and her team also claim that Ceres’ linear features may represent subsurface faults.

Astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi first discovered Ceres on January 1, 1801, and named it after the Roman goddess of agriculture, according to a post on Planetary.org. Ceres was originally thought to be a planet, but was later downgraded to a mere asteroid before once again having its status changed to that of a dwarf planet, putting it in the same class of celestial bodies as Pluto — for now anyway.

Since its discovery, Ceres has remained a source of wonder and mystery for astronomers and other scientists.

“When we got to Ceres, we were expecting to be surprised, and we have been in many ways,” Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell, a professor of geophysics and space physics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), told Space.com.

[Photo by NASA via Getty Images]