Huge Ice Volcanoes take place on Ceres Every Year

Huge Ice Volcanoes take place on Ceres Every Year

Researchers from the University of Arizona solved the mystery about the missing mountains of Ceres.

Giuseppe Piazzi of the Palermo Astronomical Observatory was the name behind the discovery of Ceres, the first asteroid ever located by astronomers. He made this historic detection on 1st January 1801. At the time of this finding, Ceres was given the status of a planet. However, it was reclassified as an asteroid in the 1850s after a number of objects were found in similar orbits. It is the only known dwarf planet and the largest minor planet which lies within the orbit of Neptune. With a diameter of 945 kilometers, it is the largest object in the asteroid belt that spreads between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. According to an estimate, it accounts for one-third of the mass of the entire asteroid belt.

Scientists believe that Ceres simultaneously offers an icy mantle and a rocky core. In addition to that, the presence of an internal ocean of liquid water (under the layer of ice) is also quite possible. Several emissions of water vapors were observed from different regions of Ceres in January 2014. It was a strange incident because most of the large bodies in the asteroid belt don’t emit any vapors at all. The curiosity to know more forced the researchers to send the Dawn Mission of NASA to this dwarf planet. It entered Ceres’s orbit in March 2015 and has made some amazing discoveries about it, since then. The researchers at the University of Arizona used the data from the Dawn Mission to solve a massive mystery about Ceres.

The Dawn Spacecraft found Ahuna Mons (a 3-mile-tall ice volcano) over the surface of Ceres in 2015. This mountain is still geologically young (around 200 million years old) but it is no longer active. Having said that, the researchers acknowledged that it was erupting in the recent past. It was observed that Ahuna Mons was the only volcano rising from the Cerean surface which gave way to a mystery. Astronomers couldn’t figure out a reason why Ceres erupted from just one place after staying passive for eons. This urged them to have a detailed look into the matter and it seems as if they finally have the answer.

Michael Sori, a UA Planetary Scientist, led a team of scientists which calculated the rate of a cryovolcanic activity for the first time ever. He was assisted by Shane Byrne (a Professor of Planetary Science) and Ali Bramson (a UA Scientist) in this research. They tried their best to answer a pinching question about Ceres; why is Ahuna Mons so alone? The first development in this regard came last year when they theorized the evidence of older volcanoes on Ceres. They explained that those volcanoes were erased completely by a natural process called ‘Viscous Relaxation’. Talking about that, Sori said,

Rocks don’t do that under normal temperatures and timescales, but ice does.”

Given the composition of Ceres (rock and ice), Sori believed that the mountains on the dwarf planet flow and move under their own weight. It is pretty much similar to what we experience with glaciers on our planet. He found that the temperature and composition of the formation determine the rate of relaxation. It was observed that the rate of flowing was directly proportional to the temperature and quantity of ice in a formation. Sori referred to the variability of temperature across the Cerean surface by saying,

Ceres’ poles are cold enough that if you start with a mountain of ice, it doesn’t relax. But the equator is warm enough that a mountain of ice might relax over geological timescales.”

Computer simulations supported the work of Sori and showed that cryovolcanoes at the poles of the dwarf planet remained frozen for eternity. In other parts of Ceres, model volcanoes were quite tall and steep in the beginning but became wider and shorter as the time passed. The data extracted by the Dawn Mission also voted in favor of Sori.

The researching team found 22 mountains on the Cerean surface. Only one of them was formed at the pole which is known as the Yamor Mons. It is five times wider than its height which gives it an aspect ratio of 0.2. The fact that these aspect ratios matched with the predictions made by the computer models added more weight to their claims. Sori estimated the volume of volcanoes by studying the topographical features and came up with a rate at which cryovolcanoes form on Ceres. He mentioned the time period of each volcano in the following words:

We found that one volcano forms every 50 million years.”

The findings showed great amounts of annual cryovolcanic material but it is no match to what we get at Earth. An average of more than 13,000 cubic yards was observed on Ceres. On the other hand, rocky volcanoes on our planet generate more than 1,000,000,000 cubic yards of material, each year.

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