Ceres: Dwarf Planet Likely Plentiful In Water Ice, Studies Show

Ceres is an interesting and mysterious world. Located in between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres is known for being the asteroid belt’s biggest object. The other four dwarf planets are Haumea, MakeMake, Eris, and the famous ex-planet Pluto. As Space points out, all of the other four dwarf planets reside in the Kuiper Belt, making Ceres the nearest one to Earth.

At only about 590 miles across, Ceres is also the smallest of the five recognized dwarf planets. Occasionally, it is also referred to as an asteroid.

The Dawn spacecraft, which entered into Ceres’ orbit in March of 2015, has provided scientists with an opportunity to learn even more about the enigmatic dwarf planet. According to Space, Dawn is actually the first spacecraft to orbit two different celestial bodies, as it first visited the asteroid Vesta before moving on to Ceres. Recently, Dawn has helped scientists make an important discovery on Ceres.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists working on the Dawn mission have now uncovered “evidence for ice at or near the surface” of Ceres. Per NASA, the work was prepared for the 2016 American Geophysical Union Meeting, and two separate papers regarding the subject were recently published as well. One study was published in the journal Science, while the other was published in Nature Astronomy.

In the NASA statement, Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission, explained the significance of finding water ice on Ceres.

“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.”

Raymond also later added that by uncovering places that may have once been filled with water a time long ago, it could give us a better idea of where life may have once existed.

“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.”

When it comes to searching for life beyond Earth, a popular saying among NASA and others has been to “follow the water.” In addition to uncovering evidence for past water on Mars, recent findings have provided evidence for subsurface oceans in places such as Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and the dwarf planet Pluto.

As Astronomy points out, the fact that Ceres is warmer and closer to the Sun than the other potential “ocean worlds,” such as Europa and Enceladus, further adds to the intrigue of discovering water ice near the dwarf planet’s surface.

In the paper on Science, it is explained how nine months after it arrived at Ceres, Dawn began “a circular polar, low-altitude mapping obit (LAMO).” In LAMO, a tool called the Gamma Ray And Neutron Detector (GRaND) helped scientists make this important discovery. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory discussed how GRaND tracks “gamma rays and neutrons,” hence its name, and provided a detailed description of how it works.

“Neutrons are produced as galactic cosmic rays interact with Ceres’ surface. Some neutrons get absorbed into the surface, while others escape. Since hydrogen slows down neutrons, it is associated with fewer neutrons escaping. On Ceres, hydrogen is likely to be in the form of frozen water (which is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom).”

The data was gathered over a period of five months, according to Science. Per NASA, GRaND was used to “determine the concentrations of hydrogen, iron and potassium” throughout the dwarf planet’s “uppermost yard (or meter).” As also published in Science, NASA further goes on to describes how in the dwarf planet’s “uppermost surface,” there is a rich presence of hydrogen. As Forbes also explains, this points to a large presence of water ice hiding “just under the crust.”

The study published in Nature Astronomy further explains that both the Herschel Telescope and Dawn spacecraft have provided evidence of “water vapor” being released from Ceres as well. The NASA statement describes how this paper looked at craters in the dwarf planet’s “northern hemisphere,” which are covered in what is described as “permanent shadow.” NASA also describes how these areas are referred to as “cold traps.”

The study examined 634 of these craters, and the researchers found that “bright deposits” were present in 10 of them. One crater in particular, which was described as “partially sunlit,” evidence of ice was detected by “Dawn’s infrared mapping spectrometer.” NASA claims that the recent findings provide further reason to believe that Ceres’ “cold, dark craters” have the capacity to hold and safely guard water ice.

The fact that the dwarf planet Ceres is likely rich in water ice should add yet another layer of excitement to a fascinating time for space enthusiasts.

[Featured Image by Naeblys/Shutterstock]