Water On Ceres? Dawn Spacecraft Finds Evidence of Sub-Surface Oceans

We have seen a lot of great astronomical accomplishments in the last month. New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto, the discovery of Earth-like (super-earth) planets only 21 light-years away, and Rosetta’s discovery of the chemical compounds necessary to generate life on Comet 67P giving first empirical support to the notion of space-seeded biogenesis, and evolution.


But recently, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spiraled into its third and closest orbit of Ceres, and now the spacecraft has finally entered orbit just a few miles over the dwarf planet’s surface. Since then, mission control has released color-coded images which show inconsistencies in Ceres’ topological structure, in both valleys and hills.

Similar to Saturn’s two moons Tethys and Dione are Ceres’, Ceres also has craters encirclilng the planet in a way that suggests an old, tempered surface. Mission Scientist Paul Schenk commented that those two moons of Saturn’s are similar in both size and density.

But something stands out on Ceres. There are two impact craters named Dantu and Ezinu that are unusually deep. Near their edges, two impact basins called Kerwan and Yalode are larger, but ordinarily shallow.

Another member of the Dawn science team named Ralph Jaumann (also of the German Aerospace Center) believes the presence of these differing features is actually a sign of “increasing ice mobility with crater size age.”

This means that, because of its large craters, Ceres could in fact be some sort of water world with subsurface oceans.

“Dawn has the potential for making many paradigm-shifting discoveries. Ceres may have active hydrological processes leading to seasonal polar caps of water frost, altering our understanding of the interior of these bodies,” read a NASA statement.


Even more exciting is the possibility for the dwarf planet to hold down a thin yet permanent atmosphere. Ceres’ enigmatic bright spots, shining from the bottom of a crater, seem to actually support a small, localized atmosphere by sublimating emerging chemicals out into space at a high enough rate of flow to create pressure, i.e. atmosphere.

These craters and peaks were captured in color photos and released to the masses by NASA on July 28th. NASA was also able to surmise that Ceres’ diameter is about 598 miles, which leaves it a bit smaller than the 607 miles scientists originally suspected.