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Localized sources of water vapour on the dwarf planet (1) Ceres


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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Figure 1: Submillimetre water absorption line from the dwarf planet (1) Ceres.
Figure 2: Variability of water absorption on 6 March 2013.
Figure 3: Water production of Ceres versus position on its orbit.


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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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Authors and Affiliations



M.K. proposed the observations of Ceres with HIFI as part of L.O’R.’s MACH-11 Guaranteed Time Program. M.K., L.O’R., D.B.-M., B.C., D.T. and A.M. planned the observations. M.K., D.B.-M., B.C., D.T., R.M. and J.C. contributed to the data analysis. The modelling was performed by D.B.-M., V.Z., S.L., P.v.A. and T.M. The manuscript was written by M.K., L.O’R., D.B.-M., B.C. and M.A.B. All authors discussed the results and reviewed the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michael Küppers.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Long-term variability of water absorption.

The absolute value of the area of the water absorption line at 557 GHz (line area normalized to Ceres continuum emission) is plotted for dates of observations covering the same sub-observer point longitudes: Λ = 180°–204° on 23 November 2011, 11 October 2012 and 6 March 2013 (black dots); Λ = 21°–103° on 24 October 2012 and 6 March 2013 (red dots). Error bars are 1σ. The strength of the absorption is variable on timescales of hours or months.

Extended Data Figure 2 Direct Simulation Monte Carlo calculations of the exosphere of Ceres.

ac, Number density nH2O (a), velocity v (b) and translational temperature Ttr (c) for water outgassing from an active spot about 60 km in diameter situated on the surface of Ceres at the subsolar point. The Sun is towards the right. The total water production rate is 1026 molecules per second. The Ceres surface temperature varies from 235 K (subsolar) to 168 K. See Supplementary Information. Stream lines are shown in black. The vortex seen on the night side is caused by the competition of molecules falling back on the surface owing to gravity and those molecules diffusing outwards. The local maximum in velocity observed above the active spot is also an effect of gravity. The gravity of Ceres causes 3% of the evaporated molecules to fall back to the surface, whereas 7% fall back owing to collisions between water molecules in the atmosphere.

Extended Data Figure 3 The spectrum from 11 October 2012 in H and V polarizations.

Although there is no significant polarization in the continuum, the line area is about 2.5 times larger in horizontal polarization than in the marginal detection of the line in vertical polarization.

Extended Data Table 1 Overview of the acquired data
Extended Data Table 2 Continuum brightness in the spectra
Extended Data Table 3 Characteristics of H2O spectra

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Data and additional references. (PDF 275 kb)

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Küppers, M., O’Rourke, L., Bockelée-Morvan, D. et al. Localized sources of water vapour on the dwarf planet (1) Ceres. Nature 505, 525–527 (2014).

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