Dwarf planet Ceres which lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is a water-rich world, NASA probe says


The dwarf planet Ceres, which sits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is not a sterile space rock as previously believed. New data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has shown this to be a water-rich world.

After analyzing the data collected towards the end of the mission, the scientists determined that beneath the surface of Ceres there could be a deep reservoir of brine or salt-enriched water about 40 km deep and hundreds miles wide.

“Dawn accomplished more than we hoped for when she embarked on her extraordinary alien expedition,” said mission director Marc Rayman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

“These exciting new discoveries at the end of his long and productive mission are a wonderful tribute to this remarkable interplanetary explorer.”

Ceres makes up almost a third of the total mass of the asteroid belt, but it is still much smaller than Earth’s Moon. The Dawn spacecraft arrived in Ceres in 2015.

Long before Dawn arrived in Ceres, scientists had noticed diffuse regions of light with telescopes, but their nature was unknown.

By the end of the mission in October 2018, the orbiter had dived less than 35 km above the surface, revealing precise details of the mysterious luminous regions for which Ceres had become known.

Scientists had discovered that the clear areas were deposits made up mainly of sodium carbonate, a compound of sodium, carbon and oxygen.

They probably came from a liquid that seeped to the surface and evaporated, leaving behind a highly reflective salt crust.

But what they hadn’t determined yet was where this liquid was coming from.

The new research found the liquid was coming from seawater below its surface.

Ceres does not benefit from the internal heating generated by gravitational interactions with a large planet, as do some of the icy moons in the outer solar system.

But the new research, which focuses on the 92-kilometer-wide “Occator” crater of Ceres – home to the largest areas of light – confirms that Ceres is a water-rich world like these other frozen bodies.

The research not only confirmed that the bright regions are young – some less than two million years old – but it also revealed that the geological activity causing these deposits may be ongoing.

The findings appeared in a special collection of articles published Monday by Nature Astronomy, Nature Geoscience and Nature Communications.

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