30Jun2019

Ice Volcano On Ceres Asteroid’Like Nothing Humanity Has Seen’

A lonely ice volcano on the largest known asteroid in our Solar System, known as Ceres, is is “like nothing that humanity has ever seen before”, according to NASA. It flies in the face of everything we know!

Unusual mountain Ahuna Mons on asteroid Ceres (Image: NASA)

Ahuna Mons on Ceres is a “cryovolcano”, which releases frigid, salty water mixed with mud, rather than molten rock. It is thought that it was formed from a bubble of mud that rose from deep within the dwarf planet.

This then pushed through the icy surface at a weak point that was rich in reflective salt, before freezing. The bright streaks are similar to other material recently discovered on Ceres, some of which is thought to be responsible for Ceres’ famous bright spots , according to NASA.

Although the cryovolcano is not active now, there is evidence of fairly recent geological activity. Its slopes are garnished not with old craters but young vertical streaks. A young volcano on Ceres is surprising because Ceres is a small world, with a diameter about the width of Texas, and small bodies like this should quickly lose the heat from their formation. However, Ahuna Mons proves that Ceres still had enough heat to produce a relatively recent cryovolcano.

Ice volcanoes are found elsewhere in our solar system – for example, Saturn’s moon Enceladus has fountains of water-ice particles streaming from cracks in the icy crust at its south pole. Enceladus is even smaller than Ceres, and heat is generated inside it from flexing due to the gravitational pull of neighbouring moons and Saturn. But Ceres is an isolated world, so there’s no neighbour nearby to give it a significant gravitational tug.

“There is nothing quite like Ahuna Mons in the solar system,” said Lucy McFadden of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s the first cryovolcano we’ve seen that was produced by a brine and clay mix.” The top image of Ahuna Mons, which was recently selected as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day , was constructed from surface maps taken of Ceres in 2016 by the robotic Dawn mission. Successfully completing its mission in 2018, Dawn continues to orbit Ceres even though it has exhausted the fuel needed to keep its antennas pointed toward Earth.

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