SOFIA Observations of Ceres Show You Can’t Judge an Asteroid by Its Cover(ing)

Animated sequence of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft showing northern terrain on the sunlit side of Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Animated sequence of Ceres from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The dwarf planet Ceres, at 587 miles wide the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, has a different surface composition than previously thought—and it took NASA and DLR’s Boeing 747-based SOFIA observatory to make the distinction. By observing Ceres in mid-infrared, only possible from high altitudes above infrared-absorbing water vapor, SOFIA found that Ceres is covered in silicates—pyroxenes—that likely came from impacts, the result of infalling material from elsewhere in the asteroid belt…the “dust” of asteroid collisions.

These findings show that Ceres is fundamentally different from the other carbonaceous C-type asteroids, among which it is grouped.

By observing Ceres in mid-infrared, we now know that its C-type appearance is really just a “camouflage,” a thin veneer formed from its local surroundings. It’s possible that Ceres really formed elsewhere in the Solar System and migrated to its current position billions of years ago.

These findings could not have been possible from ground-based observatories, and even NASA’s Dawn spacecraft currently in orbit around Ceres doesn’t have the mid-infrared capabilities of SOFIA.

Image of Ceres captured by Dawn  on Feb. 19, 2015.
Image of Ceres captured by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19, 2015.

“SOFIA, with its airborne location and sensitive FORCAST instrument, is the only observatory, currently operating or planned, that can make these kind of observations,” said Franck Marchis, planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and co-author of the study. “These and future mid-infrared observations are key to understanding the true nature and history of the asteroids.

“The bottom line is that seeing is not believing when it comes to asteroids,” Marchis said. “We shouldn’t judge these objects by their covers, as it were.”

Read more in articles from NASA here and from SETI here.