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Dwarf planet Ceres is now an ‘ocean world’

19th August, 2020 Science and Technology

Context:  Researchers have shed new light on the dwarf planet Ceres, which lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and is also the largest object in that belt. Ceres now has the status of an “ocean world”.

What is a dwarf planet?

  • There are officially five dwarf planets in our Solar System. The most famous is Pluto, downgraded from the status of a planet in 2006.
  • The other four, in order of size, are Eris, Makemake, Haumea and Ceres. The sixth claimant for a dwarf planet is Hygiea, which so far has been taken to be an asteroid.
  • These four criteria are – that the body orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon, has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit (which means it is not the dominant body in its orbit around the Sun and this is what differentiates a planet from a dwarf planet) and has enough mass for its gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape.

Ceres exploration in the past

  • The dwarf planet was first spotted by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801, who assumed that Ceres was the missing planet between Mars and Jupiter.
  • It was classified as a dwarf planet in 2006 and is the first dwarf planet to be orbited by a spacecraft. In 2015, NASA’s Dawn reached it to study its surface, composition and history.
  • Dawn was launched in 2007 and visited Vesta and Ceres. In 2015, it went into the orbit around Ceres and the information it collected reinforced the idea that dwarf planets could have hosted oceans over a significant part of their history. The mission concluded in 2018.

Why do researchers study Ceres?

  • Scientists are interested in this dwarf planet because it hosts the possibility of having water, something that many other planets do not have.
  • Therefore, scientists look for signs of life on Ceres, a possibility that has also maintained scientists’ interest in the planet Mars, whose atmosphere was once warm enough to allow water to flow through it.
  • Another reason why scientists are interested in the dwarf planet Ceres is because studying it can give insights about the formation of the Solar System since it is considered to be a fossil from that time.

What does it mean to be an ‘ocean world’?

  • With a crust that mixes ice, salts, rock-forming minerals and other materials, Ceres looks to be a remnant “ocean world,” wearing the chemistry of its old ocean and records of the interaction on its surface.
  • The observations from Dawn suggest the presence of briny liquid water under Ceres’s surface.
  • Scientists have determined that Ceres has a brine reservoir located about 40 km deep and which is hundreds of miles wide, making the dwarf planet “water rich”.

Reference: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-what-does-it-mean-for-dwarf-planet-ceres-to-be-an-ocean-world-6558711/