A major discovery has been made in the asteroid belt — the dwarf planet Ceres is blasting water vapor into space. Such a finding has been called “unequivocal” by the researchers, according to a paper published in Nature. This is a first time water vapor has been found from an object within the asteroid belt, and shows Ceres has both an atmosphere and an icy surface.
The water vapor is the result of its icy stores being heated by the sun, resulting in the plumes that have been detected. Ceres, which is the closest dwarf planet to Earth, was discovered in 1801, and next year we’ll get the first-ever up-close-and-personal look at our small neighbor. NASA’s Dawn will enter Ceres’ orbit next February.
Once there, Dawn will map the planet’s geology in high-resolution, as well as proving a look at its surface chemistry. This makes the water vapor discovery particularly exciting. Even better, research into the water plumes shows the dwarf planet may have some sort of seasonal activity, with water activity not being detected every time — or, possibly, cryptovolcanoes, speculation Dawn will lay to rest next year.
Said the ESA’s Goran Pilbratt: “Since Ceres constitutes about one fifth of the total mass of asteroid belt, this finding is important not only for the study of small solar system bodies in general, but also for learning more about the origin of water on Earth.”