Research Articles

Cryovolcanism on Ceres

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Science  02 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6303, aaf4286
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4286

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Structured Abstract


Classic volcanism prevalent on terrestrial planets and volatile-poor protoplanets, such as asteroid Vesta, is based on silicate chemistry and is often expressed by volcanic edifices (unless erased by impact bombardment). In ice-rich bodies with sufficiently warm interiors, cryovolcanism involving liquid brines can occur. Smooth plains on some icy satellites of the outer solar system have been suggested as possibly cryovolcanic in origin. However, evidence for cryovolcanic edifices has proven elusive. Ceres is a volatile-rich dwarf planet with an average equatorial surface temperature of ~160 K. Whether this small (~940 km diameter) body without tidal dissipation could sustain cryovolcanism has been an open question because the surface landforms and relation to internal activity were unknown.


The Framing Camera onboard the Dawn spacecraft has observed >99% of Ceres’ surface at a resolution of 35 m/pixel at visible wavelengths. This wide coverage and resolution were exploited for geologic mapping and age determination. Observations with a resolution of 135 m/pixel were obtained under several different viewing geometries. The stereo-photogrammetric method applied to this data set allowed the calculation of a digital terrain model, from which morphometry was investigated. The observations revealed a 4-km-high topographic relief, named Ahuna Mons, that is consistent with a cryovolcanic dome emplacement.


The ~17-km-wide and 4-km-high Ahuna Mons has a distinct size, shape, and morphology. Its summit topography is concave downward, and its flanks are at the angle of repose. The morphology is characterized by (i) troughs, ridges, and hummocky areas at the summit, indicating multiple phases of activity, such as extensional fracturing, and (ii) downslope lineations on the flanks, indicating rockfalls and accumulation of slope debris. These morphometric and morphologic observations are explained by the formation of a cryovolcanic dome, which is analogous to a high-viscosity silicic dome on terrestrial planets. Models indicate that extrusions of a highly viscous melt-bearing material can lead to the buildup of a brittle carapace at the summit, enclosing a ductile core. Partial fracturing and disintegration of the carapace generates slope debris, and relaxation of the dome’s ductile core due to gravity shapes the topographic profile of the summit. Modeling of this final phase of dome relaxation and reproduction of the topographic profile requires an extruded material of high viscosity, which is consistent with the mountain’s morphology. We constrained the age of the most recent activity on Ahuna Mons to be within the past 210 ± 30 million years.


Cryovolcanic activity during the geologically recent past of Ceres constrains its thermal and chemical history. We propose that hydrated salts with low eutectic temperatures and low thermal conductivities enabled the presence of cryomagmatic liquids within Ceres. These salts are the product of global aqueous alteration, a key process for Ceres’ evolution as recorded by the aqueously altered, secondary minerals observed on the surface.

Perspective view of Ahuna Mons on Ceres from Dawn Framing Camera data (no vertical exaggeration).

The mountain is 4 km high and 17 km wide in this south-looking view. Fracturing is observed on the mountain’s top, whereas streaks from rockfalls dominate the flanks.


Volcanic edifices are abundant on rocky bodies of the inner solar system. In the cold outer solar system, volcanism can occur on solid bodies with a water-ice shell, but derived cryovolcanic constructs have proved elusive. We report the discovery, using Dawn Framing Camera images, of a landform on dwarf planet Ceres that we argue represents a viscous cryovolcanic dome. Parent material of the cryomagma is a mixture of secondary minerals, including salts and water ice. Absolute model ages from impact craters reveal that extrusion of the dome has occurred recently. Ceres’ evolution must have been able to sustain recent interior activity and associated surface expressions. We propose salts with low eutectic temperatures and thermal conductivities as key drivers for Ceres’ long-term internal evolution.

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