Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Water Found on Largest Asteroid

Astronomers working with the Herschel space observatory have discovered water vapor coming from the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, the one called Ceres (pronounced like "series"). By strict definition, Ceres is so big and round that it is no longer considered an asteroid, but is now designated dwarf planet number one (having been discovered on Jan. 1, 1801, long before Pluto).

Ceres is about 600 miles across and takes 4.6 years to orbit the Sun (Mars takes 1.9 years, while Jupiter takes 12 years.) The Hubble Space Telescope images of it (see one attached here) show lighter and darker areas. The water vapor is not evenly distributed around Ceres and there is more of it when Ceres is closer to the Sun, so there may be some ice that is sublimating (going from frozen form to vapor) in parts of Ceres.

At Ceres' distance from the Sun, ice on the surface would have all sublimated long ago, so this must be vapor coming from a deeper (frozen) layer, which was a surprise. Some astronomers think there may be enough water ice under the surface of Ceres to make an ocean. This is the first time water vapor has been detected in the asteroid belt, although we have seen it coming from a moon of Jupiter's and a moon of Saturn's. There may be plumes or "geysers" of water vapor coming from parts of Ceres, perhaps like the ones on Saturn's satellite Enceladus.

We will know a lot more about conditions on Ceres next March and April, when the Dawn spacecraft arrives for a rendezvous with Ceres and provides images with unprecedented detail of this intriguing member of our solar system. (Dawn gave us lots of great information about Vesta, the second largest asteroid, before it departed for Ceres in 2012.) Isn't it great how nature continues to surprise and delight us as we explore our cosmic neighborhood?

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