Science, Bitches | Issue 4

Science, Bitches | Issue 4

Landing on Ceres

F our and a half billion years ago, a star exploded and a cloud of dust spewed into the universe. As it collapsed, the cloud began to spin, and particles began to clump together into planets and moons. Hotter planets fell into the centre of the disk and, at the very centre, our sun was born. Small, icy planets like Pluto sat on the rim of the great spinning disk. One of those small, icy planets is the dwarf planet Ceres.

A week ago, on 6 March, NASAís Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around Ceres, a relic from our solar systemís explosive beginnings. At 1000 kilometres across, Ceres is one of the largest planetary bodies in our solar system that hasnít yet been explored, and is the first dwarf planet explored by a spacecraft.

Since Ceres was born with the birth of the galaxy, itís considered a ďprotoplanetĒ. Like studying a fossil, investigating Ceresí composition and processes is like looking through a portal to the dawn of time to get a glimpse of how the universe operated at its very birth.

Better yet, Ceres likely harbours water, and may even host microbial life.

Planetary scientists at NASAís Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are nearly certain that they will find water in the form of a briny sea of ice when they land on Ceres. The idea came when planetary scientists spotted ďunusually bright spotsĒ on a 92 kilometre-wide crater in Ceresí northern hemisphere. They believe the bright spots come from light reflected off frozen water.

As in Columbusí days, when ships sailed the oceans for years in hope of discovering new lands, planetary exploration requires long journeys. Ceres was spotted from Earth in 1801, but it isnít until now that a spacecraft is nearing the dwarf planet, 4.9 billion kilometres away from earth.

In fact, the Dawn spacecraft took off in September 2007 and has been roaming the universe for seven years ó before it took off for Ceres, it visited Vesta, the second-largest rock in the asteroid belt. Like Mars, Vesta turned out to harbour watery minerals ó most likely, they came from a smaller, water-rich asteroid that crashed into Vesta and left mineral residue in its crust.

The plan on Ceres is to analyse minerals and conduct planetary geology, similar tasks to those conducted on Mars or Vesta. Dawn will lower down onto the planetís surface over the next few months and will stay for 16 months, with a planned departure on 16 June to fly home.

Hopefully, Dawn will bring back some clues into our solar systemís beginnings, and maybe even a further clue in the ongoing quest to discover extraterrestrial life.
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2015.
Posted 2:32pm Sunday 15th March 2015 by Emma Lodes.