Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Space Science

Water Plume Detected At Dwarf Planet Ceres 66

Posted by Soulskill
from the alright-who-left-the-sprinklers-on dept.
astroengine writes "Astronomers analyzing data from the now defunct Herschel infrared space observatory have made a huge discovery deep inside the asteroid belt. Dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the region, is generating plumes of water vapor. 'This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,' said Michael Küppers of the European Space Agency in Spain and lead author of a paper published today (Jan. 22) in the journal Nature."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Water Plume Detected At Dwarf Planet Ceres

Comments Filter:
  • Water=life (Score:5, Interesting)

    by T.E.D. (34228) on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @03:47PM (#46038613)

    On this planet, wherever liquid water is found, there is life. Even in some exceedingly extreme circumstances.

    Admittedly, that phenomenon has yet to be observed off of this planet. But neither has the phenomenon of lifeless water either...

    • Yes, but life on this planet was also dependent on rather substantial influx of energy in the form of light. The adaptability of that life to numerous locations happened well after the "oxygen crisis".

    • waterVapor != life

      • by mythosaz (572040)

        But as we understand it, water vapor plumes likely mean bodies of water; and so far, in nearly all cases, bodies of water do equal life. [Sadly, our experience with water is limited to this rock...]

        This, of course, doesn't make it so - but it makes it incredibly interesting.

        • by erice (13380) on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @04:37PM (#46039157) Homepage

          But as we understand it, water vapor plumes likely mean bodies of water; and so far, in nearly all cases, bodies of water do equal life.

          Not in this case. According to TFA:

          Astronomers think that as Ceres reaches the closest part in its orbit to the sun, the more intense sunlight causes its icy surface to sublimate (i.e. turn straight from ice to vapor without transitioning through a liquid phase) at a rate of around 6 kilograms (13 pounds) per second.

          So, no liquid bodies. Just solids and gas.

          Liquid water requires a substantial atmosphere, which Ceres lacks. At low pressure, ice converts directly to vapor and visa versa.

          • by mythosaz (572040)

            Interesting, and bummer.

            Still interesting to know there's ice (solid water) on Ceres. Makes you wonder from where it came.

            • Still interesting to know there's ice (solid water) on Ceres. Makes you wonder from where it came.

              Oxygen may be a distant third [wikipedia.org] in abundance in the Milky Way, but being after hydrogen and helium, it makes water one of the most abundant chemical cominations. H and He don't combine under normal circumstances. It doesn't take much for hydrogen and oxygen to make water. You may also notice carbon and nitrogen in the top ten. :)

            • The water came from the previous solar system. The one that was here before our present sun was formed. Everything that is not hydrogen comes from the previous sun and most of it was formed in about 10 seconds, just before it blew up. The debris of that nova is spread throughout our solar system, so the same schtuff we have on earth, also occurs elsewhere.
            • by symbolset (646467) * on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @07:51PM (#46041315) Homepage Journal

              The ice supposed to compose most of Ceres is thought to come from the formation of the solar system. Ceres is thought to have much of the water left in the asteroid belt, as it weight about one third as much as all the objects in the belt. It is believed to have a crust of muddy rock from late asteroid impacts and concretion which protects the inner ice core from the solar energy which would have long ago caused the ice to sublimate away on a smaller body in this region of the solar system. Since it is in the asteroid belt it is also believed to be impacted periodically, occasionally with strikes severe enough to puncture this shell, and that would result in regions of ice exposed which could cause these "plumes".

              While that doesn't mean liquid water, that does mean vast quantities of exposed ice, and easy entry to the ice levels. When Dawn gets there it may find a sort of "swiss cheese" surface where instead of craters you have some holes in the crust which are open underneath to the vast icy world below, the parts in perpetual shadow still exposed ice, caverns going down whole kilometers below the surface. Imagine the sunlight as a needle poking into each crater at dawn and scraping through the ice across the longitude of Ceres until 4 hours later it is gone. It would dig a slot. The low gravity (.03 g) would prevent the slot from caving in. At the bottom of these holes would be a crystalline ice wonderland as ice subliming when exposed to the sun and the gaseous ice recrystallizing would create some of the most astonishing ice crystals you could imagine. And snow. The sides of the slot, untouched by the sun, would expose to what is supposed to be almost pure water ice.

              Not liquid water, but very exciting still. If there was ever life on Ceres, that ice cannot hide the fact - and that would be a remarkable discovery.

              Mining asteroids is a nifty idea but if I was going to mine asteroids I think I would want to stake a claim on this one. The shots from Dawn promise to be some of the most exciting NASA has ever produced.

          • Yes, ice sublimes directly to vapour in the vacuum of space, but (as with Mars) it may not take much soil pressure to make subsurface rivers and lakes a real possibility. Microbes are found for at least 3KM below the surface of the Earth anywhere you choose to drill, the same could be true for an icy space rock.
    • I think all too often people forget that water is just the medium that life uses. Without energy of some kind to get life going and sustaining itself, water is going to be just that - water. Water plumes or not, I suspect Ceres is just a dirty, dead snowball.
      • Re:Water=life (Score:5, Interesting)

        by radtea (464814) on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @05:26PM (#46039633)

        Water plumes or not, I suspect...

        I suspect that suspicion is a code-word for ignorance.

        Water is an incredibly weird substance. It's a near-universal solvent and has constituent molecules that are fantastically reactive. Both properties make it uniquely well-suited to supporting the chemistry that imperfectly-reproducing molecular machines depend on.

        It's not too much to say that once you add water to the sorts of chemicals we know are relatively common throughout the universe, it's difficult not to get life, if you're willing to wait long enough.

        As for energy: the last time I looked Ceres was not at absolute zero, nor was it chemically inert nor free from radioactivity. While it almost certainly doesn't have a molten core, if it has a composition similar to Earth's crust it's generating about a nano-joule per kilogram from radioactive decay (mostly 40K) which sounds small until you realize the total mass is almost 10^21 kg, so it's getting on for 10 TW in radioactive energy alone. It has a warm interior, with a thermal gradient near the surface that might well power molecular machines.

        Also, Ceres orbits at just under 3 AU, so the solar flux on its surface is about 10% of what we get on Earth, which would make the integrated solar flux comparable to what is seen on Earth at about 55 degrees latitude in winter, well below the (ant)arctic circle. This region includes permafrost-free zones in Northern Canada.

        Enough energy for life? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly a far stronger argument for the presence of life than anyone's "suspicions" against it, which only include information about the person in question and tell us exactly nothing about the world at large.

        Posting "I suspect X (therefore, at least implicitly, you should believe X)" is exactly like saying, "I had toast for breakfast, therefore you should believe X". You have posted a fact about yourself (your suspicions, your feelings, what you had for breakfast) as if were in some way germane to a conclusion about a part of the world that is not you.

        • by symbolset (646467) *

          Enough energy for life? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly a far stronger argument for the presence of life than anyone's "suspicions" against it, which only include information about the person in question and tell us exactly nothing about the world at large.

          Enough energy for life? Maybe, maybe not now.

          Ceres may have had a warm enough ocean for much more than the time it took for life to arise on Earth. If life got a start there the evidence will still be there, trapped in the ice for billions of years. Was it energy enough, was it time enough? Certainly it has all the right "stuff". We should go see.

    • It is a tiger-repellent asteroid.

    • in the bible you just have learn about it in any Texas school.

    • I'm not sure why we make such a big deal about extraterrestrial water. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, Oxygen the third. Seems like a logical assumption that there should be plenty of H2O around.
      I understand that water is critical for life. But it seems to me like yet another application of the anthropic principle. Life is probably based on water because water is abundant to begin with. The interesting question is, what are the rare conditions that enabled life on Earth, vs. Mars, Mercu

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So basically there's water wherever we look?

    Seems like Drake was on to something.

  • So there's water on earth and there was water on Mars. There is water all over the moons of the outer planets too, and lots of comets made of the stuff.
    Ceres is a planet wannabe which didn't quite reach critical mass to aggregate the asteroid belt fully onto itself, especially given the overbearing presence of its giant neighbor.

    Can someone give me one good reason to not have water on Ceres, so that I may marvel at the fact that there is?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Can someone give me one good reason to not have water on Ceres, so that I may marvel at the fact that there is?

      According to these charts, [wikipedia.org] no. Water is made up of two of the three most abundant elements in the observed universe. It is also a comfortably stable compound, with no entropic or enthalpic incentive to separate.
      As far as I can tell, anything in the universe made up of 'conventional' matter will either have water on it, or will be a colossal fusion reactor with the components of water, but too much ambient energy for the electrons to even pick a single nucleus to orbit. (Neutron stars may be an exception

    • by VortexCortex (1117377) <`VortexCortex' ` ... -retrograde.com'> on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @05:29PM (#46039661) Homepage

      Can someone give me one good reason to not have water on Ceres, so that I may marvel at the fact that there is?

      Oh. For Fuc-- Are you kidding me, mate? I mean really: A big clear sky with a HUGE easy to spot moon made of the VERY SAME elements as your planet and a neighbor a bit further out with no EM field but some CO2 and an iron-Oxide rich crust you can dig -- PERFECT for baby steps learning survival without your cradle of life and its magnetic field. Then there's a rich asteroid field conveniently broken up into manageable chunks smaller than planets, a gas giant that's nearly a brown dwarf to study gravimetrics and there's moons full of methane and oceans, gorgeous ringed worlds that rain diamonds further out just begging to be seen with ever clearer optics...

      The stars laid out a damn red carpet for you. You're 500,000 years overdue for a mag-pole tear-down and rebuild, by the by -- Oh, and the regular flip cycle stopped just as soon as life started showing signs of intelligence too (that's quite the tab you've run up). And you're not even the SLIGHTEST bit impressed with all the good fortune? I mean, Really?! You just EXPECT to hit the jackpot EVERY damn time? Wow. Just wow. It's no wonder you think you can just sit there, even after having set foot off-world, not sending a single soul out of magnetosphere for FORTY FRIGGIN' Years?! Oh, man, I'm getting this on perma-record -- Only from the "mind" of an Earth ape would you get such an entitled outlook on everything. Well, in all but that Quantum Politics thing (superposition of Useless and Pointless) making you the laughing stock of the whole Galax-- er, uhm. What I mean is that with all that good luck you've apparently used up you should be BLOODY FLOORED that Ceres isn't on a -- wait, let me check... That it's not the thing on a collision course with Earth!

      Seriously, no other sentient life could STAND to just layabout in the gravity well like some ignorant primordial sludge -- What are you thinking? That someone's just going to come along and HAND YOU a space transport?! [Oh oh oh! Get a load of this, some of 'em actually ARE! Have you seen this Fermi Paradox? Classic Earth Logic!]

      Protip: The dinosaurs did have a "space program" -- Chicken Little organized the aeronautics program and survived.

    • by symbolset (646467) * on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @08:28PM (#46041585) Homepage Journal

      At Ceres' current location and with the sun's current intensity ice cannot long persist on the surface of a body at this location in the solar system. It would sublimate to gas, and with a lack of gravity be blown away by the solar wind (as seen by the fine article). With infall friction, natural radioactive decay and so on, such a body would have to have formed fairly early in the history of our solar system, begun freezing from the outside in, and then accumulated on its icy crust enough dusty concretion to shield the water below from the sun. It would have to start with a lot more water than is there now - perhaps twice as much. This would have to have happened fairly quickly in geological terms, in a region where the future minor planet is being pulled this way and that by other accumulating bodies - being threatened with destruction quite frequently. Most of it would have to happen when the early system was still shrouded with the mineral dust that would become the rocky inner planets. It would have to survive the sort of pummeling that pockmarked the moon. Otherwise over billions of years the surface water would just be gone.

      That it formed with this much water is remarkable. That it persists is a miracle.

  • by tie_guy_matt (176397) on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @04:19PM (#46038951)

    There are a lot of sci-fi shows/movies where the aliens are searching for water which is why they came to the earth. While I find a lot of these shows entertaining, I don't think they are that realistic. There does appear to be a fair amount of water in the universe. It would seem to me that you might be able to find other sources of water that don't involve pissing of a group of (reasonably) intelligent animals who, primitive as they may seem to the alien, do have nuclear weapons. Although if life on earth is anything like most alien life, then without liquid water we are all SOL. Most of us live with a faucet with an endless source so we do not know what it is like to live w/o a reliable source of water. However I can imagine that it is not fun at all.

    • by larkost (79011)

      You are absolutely correct about the water plots in sic-fi being entertaining, but not realistic. Visitors to our solar system would be far more likely either grab icy asteroids from the asteroid belt (lots of them, and they are not at the bottom of a gravity well), or collect hydrogen and oxygen from any one of many sources and make your own. Sucking water off even an undefended planet is unlikely to make sense form an energy perspective.

      But on the defense side: anyone with enough technology/experience to

      • But the human race being obliterated by orbital bombardment does not make for entertaining cinema.

        Robotech, Cowboy Bebop, and Defiance beg to differ.

      • by Dcnjoe60 (682885) on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @06:12PM (#46040129)

        But on the defense side: anyone with enough technology/experience to be able to cross interstellar space with the idea of fetching something (as opposed to colonization, where a desperate enough group could wing it) would have enough technology to wipe us off the face of the planet so quickly that we would have no chance. But the human race being obliterated by orbital bombardment does not make for entertaining cinema.

        Anyone with enough technology/experience to be able to cross interstellar space would surely find a water source in their own solar system. It's hard to believe that life exists on all of these other worlds in other star systems, but icy comets don't.

      • The problem with orbital bombardment to that level is that it destroys the surface. The global fires will consume the oxygen and some of the atmosphere wilI be blown off by the impacts. If you came all this way then you probably want the planet intact; so, it really would be more complicated. Now, a nicely engineered virus introduced into the biosphere.... That would be the way to eliminate those pesky squatters.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          A virus requires sophisticated knowledge of Earth biology. You'd also be trying to succeed where ~10^40 viruses and virons failed over 10^12 years.

          • by Yaotzin (827566)

            You'd also be trying to succeed where ~10^40 viruses and virons failed over 10^12 years.

            A good natural virus doesn't kill the host as it is parasitic in nature and needs it to survive and replicate. I wouldn't say that they've failed just because we aren't dead yet. If the hypothetical alien space invaders could get their hands/paws/tentacles on some Ebola they'd just need a good dispersion system.

    • It's just a matter of having available energy. Even on Earth, there are essentially endless supplies of water in the oceans, you just have to expend sizeable amounts of energy to desalinate it.

      If you have the energy resources for serious (rapid) interplanetary travel; or, any form of interstellar travel... Then you have the energy to process and purify water from any random icy rock or moon. Baring that, you can make it from readily available sources of hydrogen and oxygen -- that includes stripping bo

    • no Ice Pirates for YOU!

  • Ceres letter to Pluto [blogspot.com] seems even more relevant with this new finding. ;-)
  • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Wednesday January 22, 2014 @05:22PM (#46039577)

    [Ceres] is a rock–ice body 950 km (590 mi) in diameter and the smallest identified dwarf planet. It contains about one-third of the mass of the asteroid belt.

    You're in the asteroid belt? You are the asteroid belt!

How much net work could a network work, if a network could net work?

Working...