Scientists Discover Over a Dozen 'Ice Volcanoes' on the Solar System's Largest Asteroid

Tuesday, 18 September 2018 - 12:30PM
Astronomy
Space
Solar System
Tuesday, 18 September 2018 - 12:30PM
Scientists Discover Over a Dozen 'Ice Volcanoes' on the Solar System's Largest Asteroid
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Image Credit: Composite/Unsplash
There's a lot of weird stuff floating around in space, including interstellar grease and at least one asteroid worth about $700 quintillion dollars. But one of the weirdest may be Ceres, the largest asteroid in our solar system, which was recently discovered to be speckled with around 22 "ice volcanoes." That sounds like an oxymoron, but it turns out that these cryovolcanoes (as they're technically known) could be the key to understanding the forces that shape other planets and moons in our solar system.

It all started with NASA's Dawn mission, originally launched in 2007 on a mission to investigate the two biggest bodies in the asteroid belt: Vesta (which is rocky) and Ceres (which is icy). Ceres is actually large enough to qualify as a dwarf planet (even though it's about half the size of Pluto), and Dawn arrived in March 2015. While in orbit around Ceres, the Dawn probe spotted a mountain on Ceres dubbed Ahuna Mons, which was identified as an ice volcano. After a survey of Ceres' surface, the probe found a lot more dome-shaped geographical features that fit the description of an ice volcano, bringing the total number of cryovolcanoes to 22.

If you're wondering how exactly a cryovolcano works, it's actually not too different from a regular Earth volcano. According to Robin Andrews of Forbes: "The difference is that the subsurface magma, in this case, is a mixture of water, ammonia, methane and chlorine compounds; the "rock" that builds up the mountain itself is the solid ice equivalents of these liquids." Both ice volcanoes and traditional ones rely on heat and pressure to erupt, however: the hotter a liquid is, the less dense it is, which causes it to rise and eventually break the surface. When it comes to bodies like Ceres, heat is generated from some weird places, including radioactive decay and a phenomenon called "tidal heating," where gravity from nearby celestial bodies starts to pull at the rock within a planet or asteroid, creating friction.

Though Dawn's mission is now in its final stages, Ceres is one of the best places to study ice volcanoes, which have been spotted on moons like Europa and Io.


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