Inactive volcano spotted on the largest object in the asteroid belt

A NASA spacecraft has spotted what appears to be an inactive volcano on the surface of Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The volcano is about half the height of Mount Everest and likely last erupted several hundred million years ago, scientists reported Thursday.

“It’s totally cool and unexpected,” said lead scientist Christopher Russell of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Evidence of past volcanic activity has been spotted on many planets and their moons, but whether there ever was similar activity on Ceres remained uncertain until the arrival of the Dawn spacecraft.

The domed mountain appears to be made of salt and mud, unlike volcanoes in the outer solar system, which are icy, said Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who led the team that analyzed the images. .

Dawn observed the dome for several months and detected no eruptions, Ruesch said.

The volcano discovery was published in the journal Science along with five other studies that examined impact craters, minerals and ice on the surface of Ceres.

Dawn Dwarf Planet Mission

Dawn, which slipped into orbit around Ceres last year, is the first mission to a dwarf planet. Dwarf planets are similar in shape to planets, but they share the same celestial neighborhood with other bodies of similar size. Ceres was once considered a planet before being downgraded to an asteroid. Since 2006, Ceres has been classified as a dwarf planet like Pluto, the former ninth planet.

Ceres is the second and final stage of Dawn, who made an earlier visit to the asteroid Vesta. Both bodies are in the asteroid belt littered with rocky debris from the formation of the sun and planets around 4.5 billion years ago.

Dawn completed its primary mission in June, flying up to 240 miles above Ceres’ surface. NASA has approved a mission extension, but engineers need to move the spacecraft higher to save fuel. Friday’s dawn will begin to spiral until it reaches 910 miles above Ceres to begin a new round of sightings.

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