In 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi, an Italian monk, looked up into the sky through his telescope and discovered what he thought was a comet or an asteroid. He named it Ceres, after the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture. As more was discovered about it over the years, it came into planet status, and is now considered a dwarf planet.
In 2007, the ion-engine-powered space probe known as Dawn was launched on a historic voyage. Its mission: to visit and report on two separate spacial bodies, Vesta and Ceres, in one trip, something that had never before been accomplished. Recently, the Dawn probe has approached and come into orbit around Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, and has been taking pictures for scientists here on Earth to study. Here’s what you need to know about this exciting little planet.
Ceres is Old
Roughly 4.5 billion years old, Ceres is classified as a protoplanet, or a planetary object that never reached its full size. In exploring it, scientists believe that they might as well be looking at a history book or archaeological dig site for the universe. They hope that whatever information Ceres can provide will shed light on the past, present, and future of the galaxy we call home.
Ceres is the smallest of the planetary bodies known as dwarf planets, the class in which Pluto resides. Its “days” last about nine Earth hours due to its size and rotation speed, and its orbit around the sun lasts about 4.6 Earth years. With about the same amount of land area as India, it has a differentiated interior, or multiple layers, like Earth. Its crust is made of craggy rocks, minerals, and dust, complete with craters and mountains, including one strange, pyramid-shaped mountain that has been setting the media’s pants on fire recently. Its next layer, the mantle, is one of ice water, which is thought to form about 25% of the planet’s mass, giving it more fresh water resources than Earth. The ice is thought to shoot up to the surface through volcano-like ice geysers when parts of the surface get warm. The water then evaporates once it reaches the surface. The core of the dwarf planet is thought to be made of solid rock, and may yield an impressive variety of minerals and other information.
The Many Possibilities and Mysteries
One thing is for sure: the Dawn spacecraft’s exploration of the dwarf planet has scientists on the edge of their seats. There are still plenty of mysteries to solve and many possibilities for the future regarding Ceres. One of the most intriguing mysteries that has yet to be answered relates to several blurry, bright spots on the surface that Dawn has photographed. The prevailing theory is that these bright spots are areas of ice which are reflecting the sun’s light, but this is only a guess.
The biggest thing that scientists are hoping to discover is, as always, extraterrestrial life. Scientists have discovered evidence of carbonates, compounds essential for life, on Ceres. These compounds are mainly found on Earth and Mars. These carbonates combined with the water vented to the surface may create conditions suitable (or that once were suitable) for life, and may even give Ceres a thin atmosphere.
Also, as resources on Earth dwindle, Ceres could turn into a prime spot for future colonization, mineral and water mining, and a place from which to explore the universe further. For the moment, though, we will just have to wait. But we should receive plenty of data, because the Dawn spacecraft will be remaining in orbit around Ceres, as it does not have enough fuel for a return trip.
So for those of you who may be interested in space exploration and travel, keep your eye out for more news on Ceres, because it will definitely be coming.