Dome formation on Ceres by solid-state flow analogous to terrestrial salt tectonics

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The dwarf planet Ceres’s outer crust is a complex, heterogeneous mixture of ice, clathrates, salts and silicates. Numerous large domes on Ceres’s surface indicate a degree of geological activity. These domes have been attributed to cryovolcanism, but that is difficult to reconcile with Ceres’s small size and lack of long-lived heat sources. Here we alternatively propose that Ceres’s domes form by solid-state flow within the compositionally heterogeneous crust, a mechanism directly analogous to salt tectonics on Earth. We use numerical simulations to illustrate that differential loading of a crust with compositional heterogeneity on a scale of tens of kilometres can produce dome-like features of scale similar to those observed. The mechanism requires the presence of low-viscosity and low-density, possibly ice-rich, material in the upper 1–10 km of the subsurface. Such substantial regional heterogeneity in Ceres’s crustal composition is consistent with observations from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Dawn mission. We conclude that deformation analogous to that in terrestrial salt tectonics is a viable alternative explanation for the observed surface morphologies, and is consistent with Ceres being both cold and geologically active.

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Fig. 1: Ceres’s domes (concentrated between 270° and 15° E) give the surface a distinctive, lumpy appearance.
Fig. 2: Reference simulation evaluating the effectiveness of differential gravitational loading due to lateral variations in the thickness of a subsurface layer of LVLD material (case 1).
Fig. 3: Dome amplitude as a function of time for several case 1 simulations.
Fig. 4: Reference simulation evaluating the effectiveness of surface topography in generating differential gravitational loading of a uniform buried layer (case 2).

Data availability

All data used in the study are available in NASA’s Planetary Data System archive (Small Bodies Node:

Code availability

The original Tekton2.3 source code used in the simulations presented is no longer publicly available. Please contact the corresponding author for additional information.


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This work was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Dawn Guest Investigator Program (grant no. NNH15AZ85I). Some of the research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA. Special thanks to the Dawn mission operations team, who have gone above and beyond to return exceptional data from Ceres. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

Author information

M.T.B. performed the numerical simulations and drafted the manuscript. D.L.B. and H.G.S provided detailed comments on the text and morphological information for Ceres’s large domes. A.I.E. and S.D.K. provided modelling of the gravity anomaly associated with subsurface density variations. M.M.S. and J.C.C.-R. provided insight into cryovolcanism on Ceres and comments on the text. C.A.R. provided insight into Ceres crustal heterogeneity. C.T.R. and C.A.R. are responsible for the success of the Dawn mission and provided data access.

Correspondence to M. T. Bland.

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Supplementary material and Figs. 1–17.

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Bland, M.T., Buczkowski, D.L., Sizemore, H.G. et al. Dome formation on Ceres by solid-state flow analogous to terrestrial salt tectonics. Nat. Geosci. 12, 797–801 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0453-0

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