Water vapor detected on Ceres

Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel space observatory between 2011 and 2013 find that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapour atmosphere. It is the first unambiguous detection of water vapour around an object in the asteroid belt.
Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Scientists using the Herschel space observatory have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres.

Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up periodically from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet, a solar system body bigger than an asteroid and smaller than a planet.

Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with important NASA contributions.
“This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” said Michael Küppers of ESA in Spain, lead author of a paper in the journal Nature.

The results come at the right time for NASA’s Dawn mission, which is on its way to Ceres now after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta. Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in the spring of 2015, where it will take the closest look ever at its surface.

“We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself,” said Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high-resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity.”

For the last century, Ceres was known as the largest asteroid in our solar system. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union, the governing organization responsible for naming planetary objects, reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet because of its large size. It is roughly 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. When it first was spotted in 1801, astronomers thought it was a planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Later, other cosmic bodies with similar orbits were found, marking the discovery of our solar system’s main belt of asteroids.

Scientists believe Ceres contains rock in its interior with a thick mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more fresh water than is present on all of Earth. The materials making up Ceres likely date from the first few million years of our solar system’s existence and accumulated before the planets formed.

Until now, ice had been theorized to exist on Ceres but had not been detected conclusively. It took Herschel’s far-infrared vision to see, finally, a clear spectral signature of the water vapor. But Herschel did not see water vapor every time it looked. While the telescope spied water vapor four different times, on one occasion there was no signature.

Here is what scientists think is happening: when Ceres swings through the part of its orbit that is closer to the sun, a portion of its icy surface becomes warm enough to cause water vapor to escape in plumes at a rate of about 6 kilograms (13 pounds) per second. When Ceres is in the colder part of its orbit, no water escapes.

The strength of the signal also varied over hours, weeks and months, because of the water vapor plumes rotating in and out of Herschel’s views as the object spun on its axis. This enabled the scientists to localize the source of water to two darker spots on the surface of Ceres, previously seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The dark spots might be more likely to outgas because dark material warms faster than light material. When the Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres, it will be able to investigate these features.

The results are somewhat unexpected because comets, the icier cousins of asteroids, are known typically to sprout jets and plumes, while objects in the asteroid belt are not.
“The lines are becoming more and more blurred between comets and asteroids,” said Seungwon Lee of JPL, who helped with the water vapor models along with Paul von Allmen, also of JPL. “We knew before about main belt asteroids that show comet-like activity, but this is the first detection of water vapor in an asteroid-like object.”

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Asteroid is just passin’ through

Tuesday, Nov. 8 at about 6:28 PM, a space rock a little over 1,300 feet in diameter will pass within about 202,000 miles of Earth. It will not hit our home planet nor will it have any other effect on us; it’s just passin’ through. Designated 2005 YU55, it is a potentially hazardous asteroid because of its size and near-Earth orbit. It was discovered on December 28, 2005 by Robert S. McMillan at Steward Observatory, Kitt Peak, Ariz.

Spotting chart for asteroid 2005 YU55 in November 2011. WikiPedia
Spotting chart for asteroid 2005 YU55 in November 2011. Source: Wikipedia

The main reason the flyby is known to the public is that this large asteroid will be closer to us than is our own Moon and that’s a neat science headline. When good-sized asteroids come close to Earth, news of the event has different effects in different quarters.

Amongst astronomers asteroid fly-bys offer an excellent opportunity to study small “worlds” usually too far away to see clearly with telescopes. NASA and other agencies are already scanning the space rock with high-powered radar systems in an effort to learn more about the object. The data can be used to learn something about the texture and composition of the object and a bit about its history. The asteroid’s orbit will also be highly refined through tracking by observers from around the world allowing improved prediction of its future movements.

Amongst conspiracy and doomsday fanatics, the close passage is another opportunity to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) through pseudoscience and false prophesy. The Web is abuzz with gloom, doom, and gobs of misinformation already. What will they be saying Wednesday morning after 2005 YU55 has floated clean by Earth and left us unscathed? Those folks do have rich imaginations.

Here are some facts about our visitor from space and asteroids in general:

  • The word asteroid literally means “star-like object.”
  • Asteroids come in sizes ranging from small stones to a body about 3,300 feet in diameter: Ceres, the largest known object of that type.
  • The last time a space rock as large as 2005 YU55 came as close to Earth was in 1976, although astronomers did not know about the flyby at the time. The next known approach of an asteroid this size will be in 2028.
  • Asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass through the constellations Aquila and Pegasus glowing like an 11th magnitude star (very dim) when closest, not visible to the unaided eye. You’d need a good-sized telescope and clear dark skies to see the tiny star-like object.
  • This asteroid orbits the Sun, roughly as close as Venus to as far away as Mars. Along the way it crosses Earth’s orbital path, one factor that makes it potentially hazardous.
  • Large asteroids pass closer to Earth than the Moon about every five years; smaller ones pass close more frequently and often enter Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Asteroids nearly the size of a house collide with Earth about once a year with no harmful effects to us — they ordinarily explode in the upper atmosphere and the fragments burn up.
  • Though a good-sized ball of rock, 2005 YU55 does not have enough mass to have any gravitational effect on Earth.
  • Asteroid close-encounters do not cause earthquakes, high tides, or any other geological or weather events.
  • Asteroids are cataloged, their orbits calculated, and the objects tracked regularly both for scientific study and planetary protection ends. Those data are publicly available and often incorporated into home astronomy software.
  • The approach of asteroids cannot be kept secret. They are “out there” and potentially visible to all who care to look. Any truly dangerous situation would quickly be confirmed by scientific authorities from around the world.

Asteroids are but one small part of our fascinating solar system. Enjoy the real adventure and wonder of our corner of the universe that is yours through astronomy!