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Secret Salt Water Ocean Discovered on Ceres

Article posted on 8/13/2020


Image: NASA/JPL-CalTech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Another Thursday, another blog, and once again I find myself back to discussing really cool space discoveries. For the record, I’m 100% good with this. I always enjoy when new space discoveries take me back “off world,” so to speak. In fact, one of science’s newest discoveries is about Ceres, a dwarf planet I spent quite a bit of time learning about back when we released The Ceres Initiative for Offworld Trading Company.

First discovered in 1801, Ceres is the largest of the asteroids (and is also the only dwarf planet!)  in the main asteroid belt that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Recently, seven new papers published to a special Nature collection assert that the bright spots on Ceres’ surface indicate a gigantic reservoir of salty water beneath the dwarf planet’s crust.

Subsurface oceans are much more common in the outer solar system, specifically on icy moons orbiting around Jupiter (why hello there, The Europa Wager!),Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, but this recent discovery proves that they can appear on objects without a host planet. 

The research shows that Ceres was recently active and contains a vast reservoir of groundwater. It has been exhibiting a form of cryovolcanism (groundwater reaching the surface) that has never been seen before in a celestial object. This project included collaborations from members of NASA, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the National Institute of Science Education and Research, and many other institutions.


Image: NASA/JPL-CalTech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft visited Ceres from 2015 to 2018, collecting critically important data. High-resolution images sent back to Earth revealed many things in great detail, including Occator Crater, which was formed by a giant impact. The crater features a central depression covered in a dome-like structure, with various cracks and furrows, plus bright mineral deposits and smaller domes.

The subsurface ocean was likely formed as a result of the impact event that created Occator Crater. Scientists had suspected even prior to the Dawn mission that the bright spots on Ceres’ surface were the responsibility of water, and now new data strongly supports that theory. Smaller deposits appear throughout the crater as well. 

Guneshwar Thangjam, co-author of the Nature Astronomy project, said in a press release: “The evidence for very recent geological activity on Ceres contradicts the general belief that small solar system bodies are not geologically active.” 

Ceres is now a celestial body of extreme interest in the scientific community. Its complex chemistry, liquid water, and surface and subsurface dynamics means that it was possibly habitable at some point during its recent history. Perhaps a mission to send a probe to the surface is in our near future.

What do you think about this newest discovery? And, if you’re an Offworld Trading Company player, I’m curious - what are some of your favorite locations to play on, does Ceres make the cut for you?