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Dwarf planet Ceres hosts an unexpectedly young cryovolcano, says NASA’s Dawn mission images

The cryovolcanic formation on Ceres is named Ahuna Mons

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Young cryovolcano on dwarf planet Ceres. Image source: IANS
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Washington, September 2, 2016 :  The dwarf planet Ceres hosts an unexpectedly young cryovolcano, analysis of images from NASA’s Dawn mission has revealed. Instead of molten rock, salty-mud volcanoes, or Cryovolcanoes, release frigid, salty water sometimes mixed with mud. The cryovolcanic formation on Ceres is named Ahuna Mons.

“Ahuna Mons is evidence of an unusual type of volcanism, involving salty water and mud, at work on Ceres,” said study lead author Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Universities Space Research Association in Washington, DC. ”Geologic activity was discussed and debated among scientists: now we finally have observations testifying to its occurrence,” Ruesch noted.

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Although the volcano is not active now, the team was surprised that it appears geologically recent. Young volcanism on an isolated dwarf planet is a surprise, as usually only planets, or satellites orbiting around them, have volcanism.  Also, volcanic eruptions require bodies to be rocky, like Earth or Mars, or icy, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Ceres is made of salts, muddy rocks and water ice: exotic and unexpected ingredients for volcanism. Ahuna Mons on Ceres indicates such physical and chemical limitations to volcanism are only apparent. As a consequence, volcanism might be more widespread than previously thought.

“The Ahuna Mons cryovolcano allows us to see inside Ceres,” Ruesch said. ”The same process might happen on other dwarf planets like Pluto,” Ruesch noted. The team used images and 3-D terrain maps from the Dawn mission to analyse the shape of Ahuna Mons. They compared features and models of known mountain-building processes on Earth and Mars to the features found on Ahuna Mons.

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According to the research, published in the journal Science, it is the combination of features that makes the case for a volcanic dome. For example, the summit of Ahuna Mons has cracks like those seen in volcanic domes when they expand. Also, the slopes have lines that resemble those formed by rockfalls, and the steep flanks surrounding the dome could be formed by piles of debris. The mountain’s appearance also indicates it is young on a geological timescale. Surface features on planets with little or no atmosphere like Ceres get eroded by asteroid and meteoroid impacts and take on a soft, rounded appearance.

“We’re confident that Ahuna Mons formed within the last billion years, and possibly within a few hundred million years,” Ruesch said. This is relatively new geologically, given that our solar system is about 4.5 billion years old. ”Ahuna Mons is telling us that Ceres still had enough heat to produce a relatively recent cryovolcano,” Ruesch said. ”There is nothing quite like Ahuna Mons in the solar system,” said co-author on the paper Lucy McFadden of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. ”It’s the first cryovolcano we’ve seen that was produced by a brine and clay mix,” McFadden noted. (IANS)

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The Aborted Mission To Relaunch In December: NASA

In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS that caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched.

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Russian Rocket
Astronaut Anne McClain, left, is seen during training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. VOA

The American astronaut who will hitch the first ride on a Russian rocket since last month’s aborted launch and dramatic emergency landing is confident that her scheduled trip in December on a rocket that she calls a “workhorse” will go smoothly.

Astronaut Anne McClain, along with a Russian cosmonaut and a Canadian astronaut, will man the Dec. 3 mission. It will be the Russian-made Soyuz-FG’s first crewed flight since Oct. 11, when U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and a Russian cosmonaut landed unharmed on the Kazakh desert steppe after the rocket bound for the International Space Station failed in mid-air two minutes after liftoff.

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Specialists watch broadcasts from the Soyuz spacecraft showing astronaut David Saint-Jacques of Canada, Oleg Kononenko of Russia and astronaut Anne McClain of the U.S. attending the final qualification training for their upcoming space mission in Star City near Moscow, Russia. VOA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station since the United States retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, though the agency has announced plans for test flights carrying two astronauts on commercial rockets made by Boeing and SpaceX next April.

“I do see the incident that happened on Oct. 11 with our launch abort not as a failure but as a success,” McClain told Reuters in a telephone interview from Russia. “It actually bolsters my confidence in the rocket and in the processes that we have.

“We’re confident in the vehicle and getting back to it,” McClain said of the Soyuz rocket, which she called “the workhorse of the space program.”

After lifting off from Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur last month, a damaged sensor caused one of the rocket’s three booster stages to separate improperly, falling inward on the rocket and jolting it off its ascent two miles above ground, Russian investigators announced earlier this month.

Russian Rocket
The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying the crew of astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. VOA

During Assembly

Video from inside the capsule showed the two men being shaken around at the moment the failure occurred, their arms and legs flailing. Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin can be heard saying, “That was a quick flight.”

The accident was the first serious launch problem experienced by a crewed Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launchpad explosion.

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In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS that caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has said that it could have been made deliberately by someone during manufacturing or while the craft was in space.

McClain and two other crewmates will launch from the same launchpad in Baikonur, joining the space station’s current three-person crew. (VOA)