Home / Technology / A cryovolcano might be erupting right now on Ceres, as you read this

A cryovolcano might be erupting right now on Ceres, as you read this

Scientists have suspected for a while that there could have been cryovolcanism on Ceres somewhere in its distant past, because of one big pile of frozen mud — but nobody had managed to prove it. Ceres, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, has a strangely smooth surface, riddled with shallow craters but free of the largest sorts of impact basins. That makes it easy to pick out evidence of geological activity.

Ahuna Mons is such a piece of evidence. It’s a huge mud pile — one of the only convex features on Ceres — and it bears such a startling resemblance to Earthly volcanic domes that once scientists spotted it a couple years ago, they immediately trained every available instrument on the region. It couldn’t have been a regular volcano, not on iceball Ceres. But could it have been a cryovolcano? Well, those thorough observations have paid off. Not only is Ahuna Mons a cryovolcano, which spews volatile compounds like ammonia or water instead of lava, it’s a young one — and it could be erupting, right now.

Newly published researchfrom the Max Planck Institute has found that the Occator Crater — the biggest, brightest feature on Ceres, and the home of Ahuna Mons — is about 34 million years old. Astronomers make such predictions by counting craters; older places are more richly textured with craters, because they’ve had time to accumulate the scars of space debris. Occator is itself relatively free of such impact scars.

But Ahuna Mons itself is a baby, compared with its crater. Ahuna Mons is only four million years old. Its slopes are super-smooth. It’s being built up from below, as briny clay cryolava flows out and accumulates faster than it can sublimate away. That makes Ceres the closest body to the Sun with known cryovolcanoes — but Enceladus is no slouch, and Europa is also home to its own Cold Faithful.

3D visualization of Ahuna Mons, based on Dawn data. Credit: Dawn Science Team and NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

“Ahuna Mons is evidence of an unusual type of volcanism, involving salty water and mud, at work on Ceres,” said Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in a statement. “Geologic activity was discussed and debated among scientists: now we finally have observations testifying to its occurrence.”

Lucy McFadden, also from Goddard, said that Ceres is interesting because it appears to be a transition object – it’s not rocky, but it’s also not an ice world. Researching the origins and development of Ceres stands to tell us truths about the origins and formation of our own planet, and could even hasten the search for habitable exoplanets elsewhere in the universe.

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