Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Cheaper by the Dozen

When I was young, our solar system had 9 planets. It was a nice big family, which seemed to be fairly popular back then. And then, not long ago, tragedy struck; Pluto was demoted to ‘dwarf planet’.
On the other hand, our solar system family grew, because several other ‘dwarf planets’ were also named; Ceres in the asteroid belt, and Eris, Haumea, and Makemake in the Kuiper Belt. So right now, our solar system has 13 ‘planets’. A baker’s dozen! This year, 2 probes checked out 2 different dwarf planets, and the stuff I’ve been hearing is absolutely amazing!
Let’s start with Ceres, because it’s the closest to us. It’s only a hop past Mars.
I’m not sure I even heard of Ceres before it became a dwarf planet. Discovered in 1801, it was named a planet, then other asteroids were found in that belt, and Ceres became just another asteroid. And nobody really paid the asteroids any attention. The most respect they got was when a science fiction author included a nail-biting scene when his space ship had to negotiate the asteroid belt on its way to the outer system. Other ships might meet their doom in ‘the belt’, but not the ship the hero was on.
How would a scifi author treat Ceres now? It’s the smallest dwarf planet/biggest object in the asteroid belt. Would it be mined, like some think the asteroid belt would be? Would there be a base there? Do we know of anything important about Ceres?
Yes, we do.
Ceres has water.
No, Ceres doesn’t have rivers or oceans. But it has water and some kind of salt.
Scientists know this because of Ahuna Mons, one of the bright spots that dots Ceres’ surface. On Mars, Olympus Mons is a huge mountain. Ahuna Mons is Ceres’ biggest mountain. The probe, Dawn, took pictures to map Ceres’ surface, and they show that Ahuna Mons reaches approximately 3 miles in height. If someone wanted to drill straight through, from one side to the other, they’d have to drill for 12 miles. Walking completely around this ‘big bump’ would be a trip somewhat more than 36 miles.
Its slopes are steep and shiny. The top isn’t a point—more like a plateau with cracks.
It’s a volcano. But it doesn’t spew out molten rock; Ceres is too cold. Evidence indicates it spews a thick slush of water, salts and mud. And it’s geologically new - only a billion years old.
There are other bumps on Ceres; older slush volcanoes that are eroded and pocked by collisions. Now, your word for the day is cryovolcano, which is a slush volcano.

Can’t you see it? Our space-faring descendants taking a road trip to Ceres for a refreshing salty mud slushey. Umm, Yummm. I can almost taste it now!

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