Ceres Dawn Encounter: A Journey in Search for Life

The largest member of the asteroid belt, Ceres will soon be investigated by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft,   tasked to capture detailed images of the dwarf planet and produce a geological map of its total surface. The spacecraft has not yet reached its optimum orbit, but planetary scientists are already surprised and delighted by the just released preliminary results.

The best imageries taken of 1 Ceres were from the Hubble space telescope, up until February 2015, which showed the spherical body an area that was a good deal brighter than the rest of the surface. As Dawn nears Ceres, its camera gains some astonishing images, at 3 x more than the resolution taken from Hubble. Pictures confirmed a brighter region.

 

Images taken showed that the area brightness varies in intensity over the course of Ceres’ day, about nine hours long, which grows dimmer as the dwarf planet stirred into darkness. Interpretation of this variability has planetary scientists abuzz.

A series of photos appear to show a cloud which emanates from the surface. Beneath Ceres’ thin crust of rock, does it have a layer of water or ice? Is it Ceres? Could it be a ball of mud? The precise structure of Ceres is not yet known, although what is clear is that it is not all composed of rocks.  The density is too low, so there could be distinct possibility of water or ice present.

Implications of icy volcanism on Ceres at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas lead to speculation that the dwarf planet could be habitable potentially. Atmosphere do exist in Ceres, but it could be potentially be habitable to support life forms which  might exist in a sub-surface ocean, as suggested for  moons Europa or Enceladus, which orbits Jupiter and Saturn respectively.

The presence of ice volcanoes, Cryovolcanism,  is not the only system that can produce plumes of ice and dust from a planetary surface. Amazing images of plumes coming from comet P/67 Churyumov-Gerasimenko, derived from the Rosetta mission has scientist speculating at the conference that Ceres might be closer to a comet than an asteroid contrary to previous belief.

Lucky for us, we won’t be waiting long before receiving some definitive answers to questions of Ceres’ heritage and physical structure. By April, the earnest imaging campaign of Dawn will be started because the spacecraft will be much closer to the dwarf planet.  Craters and other surface features will be captures at a much better resolution.

The International Astronomical Union has mandated that the craters on Ceres to be named after international deities of agriculture and vegetation, in keeping with Ceres’ role as the Roman goddess of the harvest and other features to be named after world agricultural festivals.

 

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