Published: Mon, February 06, 2017
Science | By Carlton Santiago

Disappearing Ice Volcanoes Could Be Found On Ceres

The mystery of the dwarf planet Ceres' lonely ice volcano may have just been solved.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft discovered Ceres's 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) tall Ahuna Mons cryovolcano in 2015.

That finding is important to understanding the planet, and it could also help explain why Ahuna Mons is the only visible cryovolcano on Ceres.

It's worth noting viscous relaxation probably impacts other parts of Ceres' topography, including erasing the dwarf planet's craters.

According to the study, it is highly likely that millions or billions of years ago, there may have been several cryovolcanoes on Ceres.

The research study published in a journal of the American Geophysical Union, named Geophysical Research Letters.

"If you see one thing on a planet and nothing else that looks like nothing else, that's sort of unusual", Michael Sori of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and lead author of the paper, tells Inverse.

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"Imagine if there was just one volcano on all of Earth". "That would be puzzling". The massive structure is known as Ahuna Mons and is almost half the size of Mount Everest. Identified as a cryovolcano, which erupts ice and other volatiles instead of lava like a traditional volcano, Ahuna Mons was magnificent but alone on Ceres' surface.

The researchers hypothesized that another process, called viscous relaxation, could be at work.

Ahuna Mons cryovolcano was spotted in 2015 by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. The resolution of the image is 120 feet per pixel. For example, a cold block of honey appears to be solid. Eventually any solid will flow into a flattened state, even if it takes millions and millions of years. But Sori's team has now proposed a possible solution to this exact puzzle, a process called viscous relaxation. Likewise, viscous relaxation causes glaciers on Earth to flow. Ceres's location close to the sun could make the process more pronounced, Sori said.

These results mean that if Ahuna Mons is more than 40% water, it's totally possible that other volcanoes on Ceres that previously existed have been flattened over the millennia. Though most formations on the small planet are ancient, Ahuna Mons is just 200 million years old. Based on computer models of this process, and assuming that Ahuna Mons is composed of at least 40 percent water, Sori's team estimates that this feature would flatten out at a rate of 10-50 meters (30-160 feet) every million years.

The team already has plans to further investigate the entire surface of Ceres, in search of these flattened mountains.

These findings may reshape how people perceive the dwarf planet and lead to new research into cryovolcanoes.

Dr Kelsi Singer, a postdoctoral researcher who studies icy worlds at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who was not involved with the research, said: 'It would be fun to check some of the other features that are potentially older domes on Ceres to see if they fit in with the theory of how the shapes should viscously evolve over time'. This knowledge will give scientists a better idea of how Ceres and similar planets are formed and the kind of geological formations that are possible on planets in our solar system. "Because all of the putative cryovolcanic features on other worlds are different, I think this helps to expand our inventory of what is possible".

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