The ‘snowline’ conventionally divides Solar System objects into dry bodies, ranging out to the main asteroid belt, and icy bodies beyond the belt. Models suggest that some of the icy bodies may have migrated into the asteroid belt1. Recent observations indicate the presence of water ice on the surface of some asteroids2,3,4, with sublimation5 a potential reason for the dust activity observed on others. Hydrated minerals have been found6,7,8 on the surface of the largest object in the asteroid belt, the dwarf planet (1) Ceres, which is thought to be differentiated into a silicate core with an icy mantle9,10,11. The presence of water vapour around Ceres was suggested by a marginal detection of the photodissociation product of water, hydroxyl (ref. 12), but could not be confirmed by later, more sensitive observations13. Here we report the detection of water vapour around Ceres, with at least 1026 molecules being produced per second, originating from localized sources that seem to be linked to mid-latitude regions on the surface14,15. The water evaporation could be due to comet-like sublimation or to cryo-volcanism, in which volcanoes erupt volatiles such as water instead of molten rocks.
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Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led principal investigator consortia and with important participation by NASA. The HIFI was designed and built by a consortium of institutes and university departments from across Europe, Canada and the United States under the leadership of SRON, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research, and with major contributions from Germany, France and the USA. This development was supported by national funding agencies: CEA, CNES, CNRS (France); ASI (Italy); and DLR (Germany). Additional funding support for some instrument activities was provided by the ESA. We thank the team at the Herschel Science Centre for their flexibility in scheduling the observations. We thank the Herschel Project Scientist and the Time Allocation Committee for the allocation of Director Discretionary Time. B.C. acknowledges support from the faculty of the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC). We thank A. Pollock for proofreading the final text.
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International Journal of Astrobiology (2019)