Dawn finds recent changes on Ceres

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New data from Dawn has found at least one spot on Ceres where recent changes appear to have occurred on the surface.

Observations obtained by the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) on the Dawn spacecraft previously found water ice in a dozen sites on Ceres. The new study revealed the abundance of ice on the northern wall of Juling Crater, a crater 12 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter. The new observations, conducted from April through October 2016, show an increase in the amount of ice on the crater wall. “This is the first direct detection of change on the surface of Ceres,” said Andrea Raponi of the Institute of Astrophysics and Planetary Science in Rome.

Raponi led the new study, which found changes in the amount of ice exposed on the dwarf planet. “The combination of Ceres moving closer to the sun in its orbit, along with seasonal change, triggers the release of water vapor from the subsurface, which then condenses on the cold crater wall. This causes an increase in the amount of exposed ice. The warming might also cause landslides on the crater walls that expose fresh ice patches.”

There is a certain irony here. For eons, the only alien body that humans were able to get a good look at, the Moon, was also an object where almost nothing changed. Even today, after humans have visited its surface and numerous orbiting spacecraft have photographed its surface in numbing detail, the Moon has generally been found to be stable and unchanging. Though impacts do occur, and the surface does evolve over time, the Moon is probably one of the most static bodies in the solar system.

The irony is that this lunar stability gave us an incorrect impression of the rest of the solar system. Based on the Moon, it was assumed that airless or almost airless bodies like Mercury, Mars, Pluto, the large moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and asteroids like Ceres would also be stable and unchanging. What we have instead found is that the Moon is the exception that proves the rule. Most of these other worlds are unlike the Moon. They show a lot of surface evolution, over relatively short time scales. They change.


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