Ceres is a dwarf planet and is the largest known object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
What are dwarf planets? They are similar to the solar system’s eight planets but are smaller. Like planets, they are large, roundish objects that orbit the Sun but that are not moons. The first three objects classified as dwarf planets in 2006, were Pluto, Eric and Ceres.
Why are we interested in Ceres? Until now, the freezing cold dwarf planet Ceres was thought to be a barren space rock but this has changed. A NASA mission called Dawn studied Ceres intensely between March 2015 to November 2018. The data captured by the mission now provides a new understanding of Ceres.
They mission many sodium chloride crystals on the surface. Scientists inferred that these salt crystals likely came from liquid below the surface that had oozed out and evaporated, leaving behind a salty crust.
How did that liquid got there? Scientists have been able to confirm that the liquid comes from an underground waterbody of salty water sitting 25 miles below the surface. The waterbody below the dwarf planet’s surface likely froze over time, but some residue may still lie beneath a large crater on Ceres. Experts feel the residue still has a bit of water because of the presence of salts. The salt has helped conserve the liquid as a brine, despite cold temperatures.
Why does this matter? This new finding bumps Ceres to ‘ocean world’ status. Water is considered a key ingredient for life. Scientists want to understand whether Ceres every hosted microbial life. Which other objects in the Solar System have ocean world status? They include Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Neptune’s moon Triton and the dwarf planet Pluto.
It is possible that Ceres can be used as a possible outpost for life during missions exploring beyond the asteroid belt.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft captured pictures in the visible and infra-red wavelengths, which were combined to create this false-colour view of an area in the Occator Crater on Ceres. Picture: JPL/NASA