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Rust in Peace – Why is the Moon Rusting?
This image shows the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right), detected by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument. Blue represents the ice locations, plotted over an image of the lunar surface, where the gray scale corresponds to surface temperature (darker representing colder areas and lighter shades indicating warmer zones). The ice is concentrated at the darkest and coldest locations, in the shadows of craters. This is the first time scientists have directly observed definitive evidence of water ice on the Moon’s surface. (Image Credit: NASA)
Rust in Peace – Why is the Moon Rusting?
Mars has long been known for its rust. Iron on its surface combined with water and oxygen from the ancient past, give the Red Planet its hue. But scientists were recently surprised to find evidence that our airless Moon has rust on it as well. While our Moon is airless, research indicates the presence of hematite, a form of rust that normally requires oxygen and water. That has scientists puzzled.
A new study reviews data from the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 Orbiter, which discovered water ice and mapped out a variety of minerals while surveying the Moon's surface in 2008. Lead author Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii has studied that water extensively in data from Chandrayaan-1's Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument (M3), which was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Water interacts with rock to produce a diversity of minerals, and M3 detected spectra - or light reflected off surfaces - that revealed the Moon's poles had a very different composition than the rest of it.
Intrigued, Li homed in on these polar spectra. While the Moon's surface is littered with iron-rich rocks, he nevertheless was surprised to find a close match with the spectral signature of hematite. The mineral is a form of iron oxide, or rust, produced when iron is exposed to oxygen and water. But the Moon isn't supposed to have oxygen or liquid water, so how can it be rusting?
The mystery starts with the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that flows out from the Sun, bombarding Earth and the Moon with hydrogen. Hydrogen makes it harder for hematite to form. It's what is known as a reducer, meaning it adds electrons to the materials it interacts with. That's the opposite of what is needed to make hematite: For iron to rust, it requires an oxidizer, which removes electrons. And while the Earth has a magnetic field shielding it from this hydrogen, the Moon does not.
"It's very puzzling," Li said. "The Moon is a terrible environment for hematite to form in." So he turned to JPL scientists Abigail Fraeman and Vivian Sun to help poke at M3's data and confirm his discovery of hematite.
"At first, I totally didn't believe it. It shouldn't exist based on the conditions present on the Moon," Fraeman said. "But since we discovered water on the Moon, people have been speculating that there could be a greater variety of minerals than we realize if that water had reacted with rocks."
After taking a close look, Fraeman and Sun became convinced M3's data does indeed indicate the presence of hematite at the lunar poles. "In the end, the spectra were convincingly hematite-bearing, and there needed to be an explanation for why it's on the Moon," Sun said.
Three Key Ingredients
Their study offers a three-pronged model to explain how rust might form in such an environment. For starters, while the Moon lacks an atmosphere, it is in fact home to trace amounts of oxygen. The source of that oxygen: our planet. Earth's magnetic field trails behind the planet like a windsock. In 2007, Japan's Kaguya Orbiter discovered that oxygen from Earth's upper atmosphere can hitch a ride on this trailing magneto-tail, as it's officially known, traveling the 239,000 miles (385,000 kilometers) to the Moon.
That discovery fits with data from M3, which found more hematite on the Moon's Earth-facing near side than on its far side. "This suggested that Earth's oxygen could be driving the formation of hematite," Li said. The Moon has been inching away from Earth for billions of years, so it's also possible that more oxygen hopped across this rift when the two were closer in the ancient past.
Then there's the matter of all that hydrogen being delivered by the solar wind. As a reducer, hydrogen should prevent oxidation from occurring. But Earth's magneto-tail has a mediating effect. Besides ferrying oxygen to the Moon from our home planet, it also blocks over 99% of the solar wind during certain periods of the Moon's orbit (specifically, whenever it's in the full Moon phase). That opens occasional windows during the lunar cycle when rust can form.
The third piece of the puzzle is water. While most of the Moon is bone dry, water ice can be found in shadowed lunar craters on the Moon's far side. But the hematite was detected far from that ice. The paper instead focuses on water molecules found in the lunar surface. Li proposes that fast-moving dust particles that regularly pelt the Moon could release these surface-borne water molecules, mixing them with iron in the lunar soil. Heat from these impacts could increase the oxidation rate; the dust particles themselves may also be carrying water molecules, implanting them into the surface so that they mix with iron. During just the right moments - namely, when the Moon is shielded from the solar wind and oxygen is present - a rust-inducing chemical reaction could occur.
More data is needed to determine exactly how the water is interacting with rock. That data could also help explain another mystery: why smaller quantities of hematite are also forming on the far side of the Moon, where the Earth's oxygen shouldn't be able to reach it.
More Science to Come
Fraeman said this model may also explain hematite found on other airless bodies like asteroids. "It could be that little bits of water and the impact of dust particles are allowing iron in these bodies to rust," she said.
Li noted that it's an exciting time for lunar science. Almost 50 years since the last Apollo landing, the Moon is a major destination again. NASA plans to send dozens of new instruments and technology experiments to study the Moon beginning next year, followed by human missions beginning in 2024 all as part of the Artemis program.
JPL is also building a new version of M3 for an orbiter called Lunar Trailblazer. One of its instruments, the High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3), will be mapping water ice in permanently shadowed craters on the Moon, and may be able to reveal new details about hematite as well.
"I think these results indicate that there are more complex chemical processes happening in our solar system than have been previously recognized," Sun said. "We can understand them better by sending future missions to the Moon to test these hypotheses."
Ice Confirmed at the Moon’s Poles
In the darkest and coldest parts of its polar regions, a team of scientists observed definitive evidence of water ice on the Moon’s surface in 2018. These ice deposits are patchily distributed and could possibly be ancient. At the southern pole, most of the ice is concentrated at lunar craters, while the northern pole’s ice is more widely, but sparsely spread.
A team of scientists, led by Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii and Brown University and including Richard Elphic from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, used data from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument to identify three specific signatures that definitively prove there is water ice at the surface of the Moon.
M3, aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, launched in 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organization, was uniquely equipped to confirm the presence of solid ice on the Moon. It collected data that not only picked up the reflective properties we’d expect from ice, but was able to directly measure the distinctive way its molecules absorb infrared light, so it can differentiate between liquid water or vapor and solid ice.
Most of the newfound water ice lies in the shadows of craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above -250 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the very small tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis, sunlight never reaches these regions.
Previous observations indirectly found possible signs of surface ice at the lunar south pole, but these could have been explained by other phenomena, such as unusually reflective lunar soil.
With enough ice sitting at the surface – within the top few millimeters – water would possibly be accessible as a resource for future expeditions to explore and even stay on the Moon, and potentially easier to access than the water detected beneath the Moon’s surface.
Learning more about this ice, how it got there, and how it interacts with the larger lunar environment will be a key mission focus for NASA and commercial partners, as we endeavor to return to and explore our closest neighbor, the Moon.
Like Our Moon, Mercury’s Poles Appear to Have Frozen Water Too
The scorching hot surface of Mercury seems like an unlikely place to look for ice, but research over the past three decades has suggested that surface water is frozen at the two poles of the planet, hidden away on crater floors that are permanently shadowed from the Sun's blistering rays. In 2017, a new study led by Brown University researchers suggested that there could be much more ice on Mercury's surface than originally thought.
The study adds three new members to the list of craters near Mercury's north pole that appear to harbor large surface ice deposits. But in addition to those large deposits, the research also shows evidence that smaller-scale deposits scattered around Mercury's north pole, both inside craters and in shadowed terrain between craters. Those deposits may be small, but they could add up to a lot more previously unaccounted for ice.
"The assumption has been that surface ice on Mercury exists predominantly in large craters, but we show evidence for these smaller-scale deposits as well," said Ariel Deutsch, the study's leader and a Doctoral candidate at Brown. "Adding these small-scale deposits to the large deposits within craters adds significantly to the surface ice inventory on Mercury."
The idea that Mercury might have frozen water emerged in the 1990s, when Earth-based radar telescopes detected highly reflective regions inside several craters near Mercury's poles. The planet's axis doesn't have much tilt, so its poles get little direct sunlight, and the floors of some craters get no direct sunlight at all. Without an atmosphere to hold in any heat from surrounding surfaces, temperatures in those eternal shadows have been calculated to be low enough for water ice to be stable. That raised the possibility these radar-bright regions could be ice.
That idea got a boost after NASAs Messenger probe entered Mercury's orbit in 2011. The spacecraft detected neutron signals from the planet's north pole that were consistent with water ice.
For this new study, Deutsch worked with Gregory Neumann from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to take a deep dive into the data returned from Messenger. They looked specifically at readings from the spacecraft's laser altimeter. The device is mostly used to map elevation, but it can also be used to track surface reflectance.
Neumann, an instrument specialist for the Messenger mission, helped to calibrate the altimeter's reflectance signal, which can vary depending upon whether the measurement is taken from directly overhead or at an oblique angle (known as off-nadir). That calibration enabled the researchers to detect high reflectance deposits consistent with surface ice in three large craters for which only off-nadir detections were available.
The addition of those craters to Mercury's ice inventory is significant. Deutsch estimates the total area of the three sheets to be about 3400 square kilometers -- slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island.
But another major aspect of the work is that the researchers also looked at reflectance data for the terrain surrounding those three large craters. That terrain isn't as bright as the ice sheets inside the craters, but it's significantly brighter than the average Mercury surface.
"We suggest that this enhanced reflectance signature is driven by small-scale patches of ice that are spread throughout this terrain," Deutsch said. "Most of these patches are too small to resolve individually with the altimeter instrument, but collectively they contribute to the overall enhanced reflectance."
To seek further evidence that such smaller-scale deposits exist, the researchers looked though the altimeter data in search of patches that were smaller than the big crater-based deposits, but still large enough to resolve with the altimeter. They found four, each with diameters of less than about 5 kilometers.
"These four were just the ones we could resolve with the Messenger instruments," Deutsch said. "We think there are probably many, many more of these, ranging in sizes from a kilometer down to a few centimeters."
Knowing that these small-scale deposits exist, and that they're likely the source of the slightly brighter surface outside craters, could dramatically increase the ice inventory on Mercury.
Similar small-scale ice deposits are thought to exist on the poles of the Moon. Research models have suggested that accounting for these small-scale deposits roughly doubles the amount of lunar real estate that could harbor ice. The same could be true on Mercury, the researchers say.
How this polar ice may have found its way to Mercury in the first place remains an open question, Deutsch says. The leading hypothesis is that it was delivered by water-rich comet or asteroid impacts. Another idea is that hydrogen may have been implanted in the surface by solar wind, later combining with an oxygen source to form water.
Jim Head, Deutsch's Doctoral advisor and co-researcher, said the work adds a new perspective on a critical question in planetary science.
"One of the major things we want to understand is how water and other volatiles are distributed through the inner Solar System, including Earth, the Moon and our planetary neighbors," Head said. "This study opens our eyes to new places to look for evidence of water, and suggests there's a whole lot more of it on Mercury than we thought."
Mars Has Ice Caps, Flowing Water, and Frozen Water Glaciers
It appears that Percival Lowell may have been right – There is flowing water on Mars. Findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2015 provided the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present day Mars.
Mars has distinct polar ice caps, but Mars also has belts of glaciers at its central latitudes in both the southern and northern hemispheres. A thick layer of dust covers the glaciers, so they appear as surface of the ground. But radar measurements show that underneath the dust there are glaciers composed of frozen water. New studies have now calculated the size of the glaciers and thus the amount of water in the glaciers. It is the equivalent of all of Mars being covered by more than one meter of ice.
Several satellites orbit Mars and on satellite images, researchers have been able to observe the shape of glaciers just below the surface. For a long time scientists did not know if the ice was made of frozen water (H2O) or of carbon dioxide (CO2) or whether it was mud.
Using radar measurements from the NASA satellite Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers have been able to determine that it is water ice. But how thick was the ice and do they resemble glaciers on Earth?
A group of researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute have now calculated this using radar observations combined with ice flow modeling.
"We have looked at radar measurements spanning ten years back in time to see how thick the ice is and how it behaves. A glacier is after all a big chunk of ice and it flows and gets a form that tells us something about how soft it is. We then compared this with how glaciers on Earth behave and from that we have been able to make models for the ice flow," explains Nanna Bjornholt Karlsson, a postdoc at the Center for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.
Nanna Bjornholt Karlsson explains that earlier studies have identified thousands of glacier-like formations on the planet. The glaciers are located in belts around Mars -- equivalent to just south of Denmark's location on Earth. The glaciers are found on both the northern and southern hemispheres.
From some locations on Mars they have good detailed high-resolution data, while they only have more sparse data from other areas. But by supplementing the sparse data with information about the flow and form of the glaciers from the very well studied areas, they have been able to calculate how thick and voluminous the ice is across the glacier belts.
"We have calculated that the ice in the glaciers is equivalent to over 150 billion cubic meters of ice. That much ice could cover the entire surface of Mars with 1.1 meters of ice. The ice at the mid-latitudes is therefore an important part of the Mars water reservoir," explains Nanna Bjornholt Karlsson.
That the ice has not evaporated out into space could actually mean that the thick layer of dust is protecting the ice. The atmospheric pressure on Mars is so low that water ice simply evaporates and becomes water vapor. But the glaciers appear to be well protected under the thick layer of dust.
Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks have been seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.
"Our quest on Mars has been to "follow the water," in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we've long suspected," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water, albeit briny, is flowing today on the surface of Mars."
These downhill flows, known as Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it's likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.
"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech).
Ojha first noticed these puzzling features as a University of Arizona undergraduate student in 2010, using images from the MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars. The new study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by MRO's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).
The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren't as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.
Ojha and his team interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius). On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts, and some types of perchlorates can be used as rocket propellant.
Perchlorates have previously been seen on Mars. NASA's Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover both found them in the planet's soil, and some scientists believe that the Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts. However, this study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form, in different areas than those explored by the landers. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.
MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.
"The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these -- first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are," said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present day water.
"When most people talk about water on Mars, they're usually talking about ancient water or frozen water," he said. "Now we know there's more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water formation hypotheses for RSL."
The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA's Mars missions.
"It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future."
Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede May Have a Saltwater Ocean
In 2015, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope obtained the best evidence yet for a saltwater ocean on Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon. The ocean is thought to have more water than all the water on Earth's surface.
Identifying liquid water is crucial in the search for habitable worlds beyond Earth and for the search for life as we know it.
"This discovery marks a significant milestone, highlighting what only Hubble can accomplish," said NASA's John Grunsfeld. "In its 25 years in orbit, Hubble has made many scientific discoveries in our own solar system. A deep ocean under the icy crust of Ganymede opens up further exciting possibilities for life beyond Earth."
Ganymede is the largest moon in our solar system and the only moon with its own magnetic field. The magnetic field causes aurorae, which are ribbons of glowing, hot electrified gas, in regions circling the north and south poles of the moon. Because Ganymede is close to Jupiter, it is also embedded in Jupiter's magnetic field. When Jupiter's magnetic field changes, the aurorae on Ganymede also change, "rocking" back and forth.
By watching the rocking motion of the two aurorae, scientists were able to determine that a large amount of saltwater exists beneath Ganymede's crust, affecting its magnetic field.
A team of scientists led by Joachim Saur of the University of Cologne in Germany came up with the idea of using Hubble to learn more about the inside of the moon.
"I was always brainstorming how we could use a telescope in other ways," said Saur. "Is there a way you could use a telescope to look inside a planetary body? Then I thought, the aurorae!"
"Because aurorae are controlled by the magnetic field, if you observe the aurorae in an appropriate way, you learn something about the magnetic field. If you know the magnetic field, then you know something about the moon's interior."
If a saltwater ocean is present, Jupiter's magnetic field should create a secondary magnetic field in the ocean that would counter Jupiter's field. This "magnetic friction" would suppress the rocking of the aurorae. This ocean fights Jupiter's magnetic field so strongly that it reduces the rocking of the aurorae to 2 degrees, instead of 6 degrees if the ocean were not present.
Scientists estimate the ocean is 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick -- 10 times deeper than Earth's oceans -- and is buried under a 95 mile (150 kilometer) crust of mostly ice.
Scientists first suspected an ocean in Ganymede in the 1970s, based on models of the large moon. NASA's Galileo mission measured Ganymede's magnetic field in 2002, providing the first evidence supporting those suspicions. The Galileo spacecraft took brief "snapshot" measurements of the magnetic field in 20 minute intervals, but its observations were too brief to distinctly catch the cyclical rocking of the ocean's secondary magnetic field.
The new observations were done in ultraviolet light and could only be accomplished with a space telescope high above Earth's atmosphere, which blocks most ultraviolet light.
Pluto Appears to Have Blue Skies and Water Ice Too
The first color images of Pluto's atmospheric haze, returned by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, revealed that Pluto has a blue haze.
"Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It's gorgeous," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.
The haze particles themselves are likely gray or red, but the way they scatter blue light has gotten the attention of the New Horizons science team. "That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles," said science team researcher Carly Howett, also of SwRI. "A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger, but still relatively small, soot-like particles we call tholins."
Scientists believe the tholin particles form high in the atmosphere, where ultraviolet sunlight breaks apart and ionizes nitrogen and methane molecules and allows them to react with one another to form more and more complex negatively and positively charged ions. When they recombine, they form very complex macro-molecules, a process first found to occur in the upper atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan. The more complex molecules continue to combine and grow until they become small particles. Volatile gases condense and coat their surfaces with ice frost before they have time to fall through the atmosphere to the surface, where they add to Pluto's red coloring.
In a second significant finding, New Horizons has detected numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto. The discovery was made from data collected by the Ralph spectral composition mapper on New Horizons.
"Large expanses of Pluto don't show exposed water ice," said science team member Jason Cook, of SwRI, "because it's apparently masked by other, more volatile ices across most of the planet. Understanding why water appears exactly where it does, and not in other places, is a challenge that we are digging into."
A curious aspect of the detection is that the areas showing the most obvious water ice spectral signatures correspond to areas that are bright red in recently released color images. "I'm surprised that this water ice is so red," says Silvia Protopapa, a science team member from the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. "We don't yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto's surface."
Even the Dwarf Planet Ceres Appears to Have Water
In 2014, Scientists using the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres. Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up periodically from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet, a solar system body bigger than an asteroid and smaller than a planet.
"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 ESA in Spain.
The results come at the right time for NASA's Dawn mission, which is on its way to Ceres now after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta. Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in the spring of 2015, where it will take the closest look ever at its surface.
"We've got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don't have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself," said Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high resolution, revealing the processes that drive the out-gassing activity."
For the last century, Ceres was known as the largest asteroid in our solar system. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the governing organization responsible for naming planetary objects, reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet because of its large size. It is roughly 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. When it first was spotted in 1801, astronomers thought it was a planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Later, other cosmic bodies with similar orbits were found, marking the discovery of our solar system's main belt of asteroids.
Scientists believe Ceres contains rock in its interior with a thick mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more fresh water than is present on all of Earth. The materials making up Ceres likely date from the first few million years of our solar system's existence and accumulated before the planets formed.
Until now, ice had been theorized to exist on Ceres but had not been detected conclusively. It took Herschel's far-infrared vision to see, finally, a clear spectral signature of the water vapor. But Herschel did not see water vapor every time it looked. While the telescope spied water vapor four different times, on one occasion there was no signature.
Here is what scientists think is happening. When Ceres swings through the part of its orbit that is closer to the sun, a portion of its icy surface becomes warm enough to cause water vapor to escape in plumes at a rate of about 6 kilograms (13 pounds) per second. When Ceres is in the colder part of its orbit, no water escapes.
The strength of the signal also varied over hours, weeks, and months because of the water vapor plumes rotating in and out of Herschel's views as the object spins on its axis. This enabled the scientists to localize the source of water to two darker spots on the surface of Ceres, previously seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The dark spots might be more likely to out-gas because dark material warms faster than light material. When the Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres, it will be able to investigate these features.
The results are somewhat unexpected because comets, the icier cousins of asteroids, are known typically to sprout jets and plumes, while objects in the asteroid belt are not.
"The lines are becoming more and more blurred between comets and asteroids," said Seungwon Lee of JPL, who helped with the water vapor models along with Paul von Allmen, also of JPL. "We knew before about main belt asteroids that show comet-like activity, but this is the first detection of water vapor in an asteroid-like object."
The research is part of the Measurements of eleven Asteroids and Comets Using Herschel (MACH-11) program, which used Herschel to look at small bodies that have been or will be visited by spacecraft, including the targets of NASA's previous Deep Impact mission and upcoming Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex). Laurence O'Rourke of the European Space Agency is the principal investigator of the MACH-11 program.
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