LOS ANGELES – The largest object in the asteroid belt just got more attractive: Scientists have confirmed signs of water on the dwarf planet Ceres, one of the few bodies in the solar system to hold that distinction.
Peering through the Herschel Space Observatory, a team led by the European Space Agency detected water plumes spewing from two regions on Ceres.
The observations, published in today’s issue of Nature, come as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is set to arrive at the Texas-sized dwarf planet next year.
It’s long been suspected that Ceres is water-rich, but previous detections have been inconclusive. This is the first definitive evidence of water on Ceres and confirms that it has an icy surface, said lead author Michael Kuppers of the European Space Agency.
“It makes Ceres a more exciting target” for exploration, he said.
The latest finding puts Ceres in a special class of solar system objects with active plumes of water, a key ingredient for life. The company includes Jupiter’s moon Europa and the Saturn moon Enceladus.
The source of the water plumes is still unclear. Scientists think there may be a layer of ice just below the surface that gets heated by the sun or the plumes could be spewed by ice volcanoes.