Research Articles

The geomorphology of Ceres

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Science  02 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6303, aaf4332
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4332

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Structured Abstract


Observations of Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, have suggested that the dwarf planet is a geologically differentiated body with a silicate core and an ice-rich mantle. Data acquired by the Dawn spacecraft were used to perform a three-dimensional characterization of the surface to determine if the geomorphology of Ceres is consistent with the models of an icy interior.


Instruments on Dawn have collected data at a variety of resolutions, including both clear-filter and color images. Digital terrain models have been derived from stereo images. A preliminary 1:10 M scale geologic map of Ceres was constructed using images obtained during the Approach and Survey orbital phases of the mission. We used the map, along with higher-resolution imagery, to assess the geology of Ceres at the global scale, to identify geomorphic and structural features, and to determine the geologic processes that have affected Ceres globally.


Impact craters are the most prevalent geomorphic feature on Ceres, and several of the craters have fractured floors. Geomorphic analysis of the fracture patterns shows that they are similar to lunar Floor-Fractured Craters (FFCs), and an analysis of the depth-to-diameter ratios shows that they are anomalously shallow compared with average Ceres craters. Both of these factors are consistent with FFC floors being uplifted due to an intrusion of cryomagma.

Kilometer-scale linear structures cross much of Ceres. Some of these structures are oriented radially to large craters and most likely formed due to impact processes. However, a set of linear structures present only on a topographically high region do not have any obvious relationship to impact craters. Geomorphic analysis suggests that they represent subsurface faults and might have formed due to crustal uplift by cryomagmatic intrusion.

Domes identified across the Ceres surface present a wide range of sizes (<10 km to >100 km), basal shapes, and profiles. Whether a single formation mechanism is responsible for their formation is still an open question. Cryovolcanic extrusion is one plausible process for the larger domes, although most small mounds (<10-km diameter) are more likely to be impact debris.

Differences in lobate flow morphology suggest that multiple emplacement processes have operated on Ceres, where three types of flows have been identified. Type 1 flows are morphologically similar to ice-cored flows on Earth and Mars. Type 2 flows are comparable to long-runout landslides. Type 3 flows morphologically resemble the fluidized ejecta blankets of rampart craters, which are hypothesized to form by impact into ice-rich ground.


The global trend of lobate flows suggests that differences in their geomorphology could be explained by variations in ice content and temperature at the near surface. Geomorphic and topographic analyses of the FFCs suggest that cryomagmatism is active on Ceres, whereas the large domes are possibly formed by extrusions of cryolava. Although spectroscopic analysis to date has identified water ice in only one location on Ceres, the identification of these potentially ice-related features suggests that there may be more ice within localized regions of Ceres’ crust.

Dawn high-altitude mapping orbit imagery (140 meters per pixel) of example morphologic features.

(A) Occator crater; arrows point to floor fractures. (B) Linear structures, denoted by arrows. (C) A large dome at 42° N, 10° E, visible in the elevation map. (D) A small mound at 45.5° S, 295.7° E. (E) Type 1 lobate flow; arrows point to the flow front.


Analysis of Dawn spacecraft Framing Camera image data allows evaluation of the topography and geomorphology of features on the surface of Ceres. The dwarf planet is dominated by numerous craters, but other features are also common. Linear structures include both those associated with impact craters and those that do not appear to have any correlation to an impact event. Abundant lobate flows are identified, and numerous domical features are found at a range of scales. Features suggestive of near-surface ice, cryomagmatism, and cryovolcanism have been identified. Although spectroscopic analysis has currently detected surface water ice at only one location on Ceres, the identification of these potentially ice-related features suggests that there may be at least some ice in localized regions in the crust.

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