Water on Dwarf Planet Ceres Is Driving an Active Surface

Growing patches of ice and minerals associated with liquid water reveal that the dwarf planet Ceres is still evolving.

Researchers studying the warmer region of Ceres — the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — have noticed that a patch of ice has grown larger over time. In addition, a separate team found carbon-rich minerals on Ceres’ surface that do not last long . Together, the new discoveries suggest that water still has a powerful presence on the tiny world.

Using NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, the researchers studied the surface of the dwarf planet. The first team, led by Andrea Raponi, of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), found a growing patch of ice on Juling Crater, found in the midlatitudes. They suspect that water from the crater floor is condensing on the wall, causing a patch of ice to grow larger. [7 Strange Facts About Dwarf Planet Ceres]

The second team, led by Filippo Giacomo Carrozzo, also of INAF, surveyed the carbon-rich minerals on the dwarf planet and mapped several regions in detail, revealing changes in the soil that they suspect are tied to the carbonates. The water-rich, or hydrated, minerals suggest that water has risen to the surface and boiled off, leaving the carbonates behind to reveal its presence.

“The same process can be at work in the crater floor of Juling, providing a replenishment of water under the soil that sublimates and in part condenses on the cold wall,” Raponi told Space.com by email.

“The two works show that water is currently available on the surface of Ceres and produces geological and mineralogical changes on its surface,” he said.

A map of Ceres reveals the distribution and intensity of carbonate material, much of which may be associated with water.

Credit: Carrozzo et al., Sci. Adv. 2018;4: e1701645ce

Ceres is classified as both a dwarf planet and an asteroid. When the Dawn spacecraft arrived at Ceres in 2015, it found a nearly featureless world with a rocky surface. A single mountain, Ahuna Mons, rose from the surface. Bright spots within craters were the only color variations on the otherwise dull, gray world.

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