That frozen volcano on Ceres isn’t hibernating

ice volcano Ahuna Mons

What was first thought to be just another bizarre geo-formation on Ceres has just been determined by scientists as what could possibly be the biggest oxymoron in space: a cryovolcano.

Frozen monolith Ahuna Mons is was first examined by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, and while it’s no surprise that a dwarf planet floating around in space anywhere near Neptune is going to be just arctic (try a cool -36 degrees) as the ice planet it orbits, Dawn evidence suggests its geological activity hasn’t been frozen. You know what volcanoes do when they yawn into consciousness.

Cryovolcanoes spew slush and plumes of water vapor instead of the glowing magma ooze broadcast in red-hot HD on every nature channel ever. While not on Earth, they do act up on other planets in our solar system, and one on Saturn’s moon Enceladus was even caught by the spacecraft Cassini in mid-tantrum. They might even (ironically) be found closer to the sun. Eruptions tend to leave enormous amounts of volatile space gloop with a high salt content. Scientists still aren’t sure it’s just NaCl or something too poisonous to turn into bath salts.

NASA perspective simulation of Ahuna Mons

The icy, salt-infused blobs that gush out of Ahuna Mons go into an even deeper freeze around the mouth of the volcano until they break off into boulders massive enough to crush an abominable snowman. The fractures this post-eruption avalanche leaves behind (think veins in ice cubes) on the volcano itself tell astronomers how Ahuna Mons formed and give evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that it’s been in eruption mode. Eternal winter aside, its genesis—and eruptions—aren’t too different front those of our own planet’s fire-breathing hellions. Just substitute ice for lava.

Dawn was able to prove that Ahuna Mons must have had another outburst recently, as in this year. Its VIR (visible and infrared mapping spectrometer) was able to detect light wavelengths that suggested water ice in one of Ceres’ craters. Strangely enough, exposed water ice visible to the robotic eyeball is rare, even though the planetoid’s crust is a glacial layer of water ice and silicates over what scientists think could be a freezing ocean of liquid water at its core. If it exists, that could be where all the slushy vomitus is coming from, much like how how the gushing spectacle of magma arises from Earth’s liquid inner layers. Terrestrial volcanoes have been crucial to scientists’ understanding of the extraterrestrial.

 Cryovolcanoes have opened a new portal in astrogeology. There could be a crystals of valuable information glittering in all that ice. Secrets may surface from the hypothetical ocean the “lava” of Ahuna Mons gushes from, and may even tell us if anything is swimming in its alien depths. NASA is also determined to find more of these geological anomalies on Ceres and beyond. This planetoid’s mysterious landscape just keeps looking more sci-fi—and more fascinating.



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