Free Newsletters - Space - Defense - Environment - Energy - Solar - Nuclear
..
. 24/7 Space News .




IRON AND ICE
Dwarf Planet Ceres - 'A Game Changer in the Solar System'
by Nola Taylor Redd for Astrobiology Magazine
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Dec 26, 2013


illustration only

In March of 2015, NASA's Dawn mission will arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres, the first of the smaller class of planets to be discovered and the closest to Earth. Ceres, which orbits the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is a unique body in the Solar System, bearing many similarities to Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, both considered to be potential sources for harboring life.

On Thursday, August 15, Britney Schmidt, science team liaison for the Dawn Mission, and Julie Castillo-Rogez, planetary scientist from JPL, spoke in an Google Plus Hangout titled 'Ceres: Icy World Revealed?' about the growing excitement related to the innermost icy body.

"I think of Ceres actually as a game changer in the Solar System," Schmidt said. "Ceres is arguably the only one of its kind."

The innermost icy body
When Ceres was discovered in 1801, astronomers first classified it as a planet. The massive body traveled between Mars and Jupiter, where scientists had mathematically predicted a planet should lie. Further observations revealed that a number of small bodies littered the region, and Ceres was downgraded to just another asteroid within the asteroid belt. It wasn't until Pluto was classified as a dwarf planet in 2006 that Ceres was upgraded to the same level.

Ceres is the most massive body in the asteroid belt, and larger than some of the icy moons scientists consider ideal for hosting life. It is twice the size of Enceladus, Saturn's geyser-spouting moon that may hide liquid water beneath its surface.

Unlike other asteroids, the Texas-sized Ceres has a perfectly rounded shape that hints toward its origins.

"The fact that Ceres is so round tells us that it almost certainly had to form in the early solar system," Schmidt said. She explained that a later formation would have created a less rounded shape.

The shape of the dwarf planet, combined with its size and total mass, reveal a body of incredibly low density.

"Underneath this dusty, dirty, clay-type surface, we think that Ceres might be icy," Schmidt said. "It could potentially have had an ocean at one point in its history."

"The difference between Ceres and other icy bodies [in the Solar System] is that it's the closest to the Sun," Castillo-Rogez said.

Less than three times as far as Earth from the Sun, Ceres is close enough to feel the warmth of the star, allowing ice to melt and reform.

Investigating the interior of the dwarf planet could provide insight into the early solar system, especially locations where water and other volatiles might have existed.

"Ceres is like the gatekeeper to the history of water in the middle solar system," Schmidt said.

Studying the surface
As large as Ceres is, its distance has made it a challenge to study from Earth. Images taken by the space-based Hubble Space Telescope provided some insight to its surface, but to be sighted, features could be no larger than 25 kilometers in diameter. Several round circular spots mar the terrain, features which Schmidt said could be any one of a number of geologic terrains, including potentially impact basins or chaos terrains similar to those found on Europa. The largest of these, named Piazzi in honor of the dwarf planet's discoverer, has a diameter of about 250 kilometers. If this feature is an impact basin, it would have been formed by an object approximately 25 km in size.

But for Schmidt, this is another possible indication about the dwarf planet's surface.

"It doesn't mean that Ceres hasn't been hit by something bigger than 25 kilometers," she said."It just means that whatever is going on on Ceres has totally erased [the topographic signature of that event]."

Ceres may have suffered major impacts, especially during periods of heavy bombardment early in the Solar System's history. If the surface contained ice, however, those features may have been erased.

Telescopes on Earth have also been able to study the light reflecting from the planet and read its spectra.

"The spectrum is telling you that water has been involved in the creation of materials on the surface," Schmidt said.

The spectrum indicates that water is bound up in the material on the surface of Ceres, forming a clay. Schmidt compared it to the recent talk of minerals found by NASA's Curiosity on the surface of Mars.

"[Water is] literally bathing the surface of Ceres," she said.

In addition, astronomers have found evidence of carbonates, minerals that form in a process involving water and heat. Carbonates are often produced by living processes.

The original material formed with Ceres has mixed with impacting material over the last 4.5 billion years, creating what Schmidt calls "this mixture of water-rich materials that we find on habitable planets like the Earth and potentially habitable planets like Mars."

A prime site for life?
Water is considered a necessary ingredient for the evolution of life as we know it. Planets that may have once contained water, such as Mars, as well as moons that could contain it today, like Enceladus and Europa, are all thought to be ideal for hosting or having once hosted life.

Because of its size and closeness, Schmidt calls Ceres "arguably more interesting than some of these icy satellites."

"If it's icy, it had to have an ocean at some point in time," she said.

Castillo-Rogez compared Earth, Europa, and Ceres, and found that the dwarf planet bore many similarities to Earth, perhaps more than Jupiter's icy moon. Both Earth and Ceres use the Sun as a key heat source, while Europa takes its heat from its tidal interaction with Jupiter. In addition, the surface temperature of the dwarf planet averages 130 to 200 degrees Kelvin, compared to Earth's 300 K, while Europa is a frosty 50 to 110 K.

"At least at the equator where the surface is warmer, Ceres could have preserved a liquid of sorts," Castillo-Rogez said.

Liquid water could exist at other points on the dwarf planet known as cold traps, shadowed areas where frozen water could remain on the surface. Such icy puddles have been found on Earth's moon.

"The chemistry, thermal activity, the heat source, and the prospect for convection within the ice shell are the key ones that make us think that Ceres could have been habitable at least at some point in its history," Castillo-Rogez said.

The future of Ceres

As scientists develop more information about Europa and Enceladus, there has been a greater call to investigate the two prime sites for life. But Schmidt and Castillo-Rogez think that Ceres could also be a great boon for astrobiology and space exploration.

"It's not a difficult environment to investigate," she said."As we think about the future of landed missions for people and rovers, why not go to Ceres?"

Though it would be more challenging to drill into than Europa, which boasts an icy surface layer, the dwarf planet would make a great site to rove around on. Schmidt also noted that it could make a great launching point when it comes to reaching the outer solar system. Its smaller mass would make it easier to land on-and leave-than Mars, which could make it a good site for manned missions.

"We have such a big planet bias, we have such a bias for things that look exactly like us," Schmidt said.

"In this kind of special place in the Solar System, we have a very unique object that might be telling us a lot about what we don't know about building a habitable planet."

NASA's Dawn mission launched September 27, 2007. It traveled to the asteroid Vesta, where it remained in orbit from July 2011 to July 2012 before heading to Ceres. It is slated to spend five months studying the dwarf planet, though Schmidt expressed hope that the craft would continue working beyond the nominal mission, allowing the team to study the icy body even longer.

Castillo-Rogez pointed out that not only will Dawn reach Ceres in 2015, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft will be escorting the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko around the Sun that year, while NASA's New Horizons mission will be reaching Pluto and its moon Charon.

"'15 is going to be a great year for icy bodies," Castillo-Rogez said.

"I think when we get to Ceres, it's just going to be an absolute game changer, a new window into the Solar System that we wouldn't have without going there," Schmidt said.

.


Related Links
Astrobiology Magazine
Asteroid and Comet Mission News, Science and Technology






Comment on this article via your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks
del.icio.usdel.icio.us DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle




Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News





IRON AND ICE
Dawn Creates Guide to Vesta's Hidden Attractions
Pasadena CA (JPL) Dec 20, 2013
Some beauty is revealed only at a second glance. When viewed with the human eye, the giant asteroid Vesta, which was the object of scrutiny by the Dawn spacecraft from 2011 to 2012, is quite unspectacular color-wise. Vesta looks grayish, pitted by a variety of large and small craters. But scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, ... read more


IRON AND ICE
China's moon rover "sleeps" through lunar night

Will the Moon be carved-up?

NASA Releases New Earthrise Simulation Video

Most Chang'e-3 science tools activated

IRON AND ICE
Curious Results from Mars

Mars One mission: one way ticket to new life

Mars Express heading towards daring flyby of Phobos

ISRO end year on high note after Mars mission

IRON AND ICE
Space trips open to Chinese travelers

Work on NASA's New Orion Spacecraft Progresses as Engineers Pivot to 2014

Boeing Completes Mission Control Center Interface Test

Official: Iran to Send Astronaut into Space in 2024

IRON AND ICE
China launches communications satellite for Bolivia

China's moon rover continues lunar survey after photographing lander

China's Yutu "naps", awakens and explores

Deep space monitoring station abroad imperative

IRON AND ICE
Station's Replacement Pump Successfully Restarted

Russian cosmonauts Kotov and Ryazansky complete ISS spacewalk

Spacewalk ends, station fix a success

Spacewalk ends, ISS fix a success

IRON AND ICE
The Athena-Fidus satellite is readied for Arianespace first heavy-lift mission of 2014

Boeing, Energia Achieve Mixed Results in Counterclaims

Russian Rocket Puts Telecoms Satellite Into Orbit

Orbital Launches Completes 40th Consecutive Successful Suborbital Rocket For NASA

IRON AND ICE
Using an Atmosphere to Weigh a Planet

Gaia Mission Could Help Map Exoplanets

First detection of a predicted unseen exoplanet

Astronomers solve temperature mystery of planetary atmospheres

IRON AND ICE
Laser Demonstration Reveals Bright Future for Space Communication

Scientific data lost at alarming rate

Europe's Gaia telescope detaches from Fregat-MT upper stage

Sailing satellites into safe retirement




The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement