Research Article

Cratering on Ceres: Implications for its crust and evolution

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Science  02 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6303,
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4759

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Structured Abstract


Thermochemical models have predicted that the dwarf planet Ceres has, to some extent, formed a mantle. Moreover, due to viscous relaxation, these models indicate that Ceres should have an icy crust with few or no impact craters. However, the Dawn spacecraft has shown that Ceres has elevation excursions of ~15 km, cliffs, graben, steep-sided mountains, and a heavily cratered surface.


We used Dawn’s Framing Camera to study the morphology, size frequency, and spatial distribution of the craters on Ceres. These data allow us to infer the structure and evolution of Ceres’ outer shell.


A large variety of crater morphologies are present on Ceres, including bowl-shaped craters, polygonal craters, floor-fractured craters, terraces, central peaks, smooth floors, flowlike features, bright spots, secondary craters, and crater chains. The morphology of some impact craters is consistent with water ice in the subsurface. Although this might have favored relaxation, there are also large unrelaxed craters. The transition from bowl-shaped simple craters to modified complex craters occurs at diameters of about 7.5 to 12 km. Craters larger than 300 km are absent, but low-pass filtering of the digital elevation model suggests the existence of two quasi-circular depressions with diameters of ~570 km (125.56°E and 19.60°N) and ~830 km (24.76°W and 0.5°N). Craters are heterogeneously distributed across Ceres’ surface, with more craters in the northern versus the southern hemisphere. The lowest crater densities are associated with large, well-preserved southern hemisphere impact craters such as Urvara and Yalode. Because the low crater density (LCD) terrain extends across a large latitude range in some cases (e.g., Urvara and Yalode: ~18°N and 75°S; Kerwan: ~30°N and 46°S), its spatial distribution is inconsistent with simple relaxation driven by warmer equatorial temperatures. We instead propose that impact-driven resurfacing is the more likely LCD formation process, although we cannot completely rule out an internal (endogenic) origin. We applied two different methodologies to derive absolute model ages from observed crater size-frequency distributions. The lunar-derived model adapts the lunar production and chronology functions to impact conditions on Ceres, taking into account impact velocities, projectile densities, current collision probabilities, and surface gravity. The asteroid-derived model derives a production function by scaling the directly observed object size-frequency distribution from the main asteroid belt (extended to sizes <5 km by a collisional model) to the resulting size-frequency distribution of cerean craters, using similar cerean target parameters as the lunar-derived model. By dating a smooth region associated with the Kerwan crater, we determined absolute model ages of 550 million and 720 million years, depending on which chronology model is applied.


Crater morphology and the simple-to-complex crater transition indicate that Ceres’ outer shell is likely neither pure ice nor pure rock but an ice-rock mixture that allows for limited relaxation. The heterogeneous crater distribution across the surface indicates crustal heterogeneities and a complex geologic evolution of Ceres. There is evidence for at least some geologic activity occurring in Ceres’ recent history.



Thermochemical models have predicted that Ceres, is to some extent, differentiated and should have an icy crust with few or no impact craters. We present observations by the Dawn spacecraft that reveal a heavily cratered surface, a heterogeneous crater distribution, and an apparent absence of large craters. The morphology of some impact craters is consistent with ice in the subsurface, which might have favored relaxation, yet large unrelaxed craters are also present. Numerous craters exhibit polygonal shapes, terraces, flowlike features, slumping, smooth deposits, and bright spots. Crater morphology and simple-to-complex crater transition diameters indicate that the crust of Ceres is neither purely icy nor rocky. By dating a smooth region associated with the Kerwan crater, we determined absolute model ages (AMAs) of 550 million and 720 million years, depending on the applied chronology model.

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