Research Article

Detection of local H2O exposed at the surface of Ceres

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Science  02 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6303,
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf3010

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Structured Abstract


Dwarf planet Ceres’ low average-density (2162 ± 3 kg m−3) indicates that it must contain considerable water. Water is likely a key component in the chemical evolution and internal activity of Ceres, possibly resulting in a layer of ice-rich material and perhaps liquid in the mantle. Mineral hydroxides (OH-bearing) and hydrates (H2O-bearing), such as clays, carbonates, and various salts, would be created. These hypotheses were supported by the detection of hydroxyl (OH)–rich materials, OH-bearing molecule releases, H2O vapor molecules, and haze. However, the presence of H2O on the surface has not previously been confirmed. The detection and mapping of H2O on Ceres is one objective of the Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around Ceres since March 2015.


The purpose of the Dawn space mission at Ceres is to study the geology, geophysics, and composition remotely by means of high-resolution imagery and spectrometry. Dawn’s Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer (VIR) measures the sunlight scattered by the surface of Ceres in a range of wavelengths between 0.25 and 5.1 μm. The position and shape of absorption features in VIR reflectance spectra are sensitive to the surface mineral and molecular composition. In spectroscopy, absorption bands at 2.0, 1.65, and 1.28 μm are characteristic of vibration overtones in the H2O molecule.


Dawn has detected water-rich surface materials in a 10-km-diameter crater named Oxo, which exhibit all absorption bands that are diagnostic of the H2O molecule (see the figure). These spectra are most similar to those of H2O ice, but they could also be attributable to hydrated minerals. Oxo crater appears to be geologically very young (~1 million to 10 million years); it has sharp rims and its floor is almost devoid of impacts, suggesting a recent exposure of surface H2O. The high latitude and morphology of the Oxo crater protects much of the surface area from direct solar illumination for most of the cerean day, presenting favorable conditions for the stability of water ice or heavily hydrated salts.


Four ways to create or transport H2O on Ceres are considered: (i) Exposure of near-surface H2O-rich materials by a recent impact or an active landslide seems most consistent with the presence of both mineral hydrates and water ice. (ii) Release of subsurface H2O may occur on Ceres, similar to release on comet nuclei, but may never recondense on the surface. (iii) Infall of ice-bearing objects is not likely to deposit water on Ceres, because the H2O molecule likely would dissociate upon impact. (iv) Implantation of protons from the solar wind on the surface is not a probable origin of OH on Ceres because of the low flux of solar wind charged particles. We therefore conclude that surface H2O or hydrated minerals are the most plausible explanation.

Dawn VIR infrared observations of Oxo crater on Ceres demonstrate the detection of H2O at the surface.

(A) Reflectance spectrum collected where absorption bands of H2O at 1.28, 1.65, and 2 μm are the strongest (in blue) compared with a laboratory spectrum of H2O ice (black). The lab spectrum is scaled and vertically shifted for clarity. (B) Perspective view of Oxo crater observed by the Dawn Framing Camera (FC), where the two high-albedo areas right next to the scarps contain H2O-rich materials.


The surface of dwarf planet Ceres contains hydroxyl-rich materials. Theories predict a water ice-rich mantle, and water vapor emissions have been observed, yet no water (H2O) has been previously identified. The Visible and InfraRed (VIR) mapping spectrometer onboard the Dawn spacecraft has now detected water absorption features within a low-illumination, highly reflective zone in Oxo, a 10-kilometer, geologically fresh crater, on five occasions over a period of 1 month. Candidate materials are H2O ice and mineral hydrates. Exposed H2O ice would become optically undetectable within tens of years under current Ceres temperatures; consequently, only a relatively recent exposure or formation of H2O would explain Dawn’s findings. Some mineral hydrates are stable on geological time scales, but their formation would imply extended contact with ice or liquid H2O.

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