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What is Ceres?

Ceres, a celestial marvel nestled in the asteroid belt, is the largest object in that region and holds the title of dwarf planet. This intriguing world, with its mysterious bright spots and potential subsurface ocean, offers a unique glimpse into the early solar system. How might Ceres reshape our understanding of planetary evolution? Join us to uncover its secrets.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Ceres is a dwarf planet and the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Its dimensions are 975×909 km, making it about a quarter the size of the Moon. Ceres orbits at 3 AU from the Sun. Its mean surface temperature is approximately ~167 K (-159 °F), although at high noon its temperature may rise to 235 K (about -38°C). Ceres likely has a tenuous atmosphere accompanied by surface frost.

When it was discovered by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi on 1 January, 1801, Ceres was considered a planet, but in 1850 the astronomical community reclassified it as an asteroid. This designation persisted for over 150 years, until 2006 when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union, along with the trans-Neptunian objects Pluto and Eris. Ceres is named after the Roman god of plants.

When NASA's Dawn probe arrived at Ceres in March of 2015, it encountered two bright spots on the dwarf planet's surface that were not immediately identified.
When NASA's Dawn probe arrived at Ceres in March of 2015, it encountered two bright spots on the dwarf planet's surface that were not immediately identified.

Ceres is not classified as a true planet because it fails to meet one of the necessary criteria for planets; to have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. Like Pluto and Eris, Ceres is embedded in an asteroid belt, and has not cleared its local neighborhood. Despite its dwarf planet status, Ceres makes up about a third of the mass in the asteroid belt. Along with the three largest nearby asteroids, 4 Vesta, 2 Pallas, and 10 Hygiea, Ceres makes up half the total mass of the belt.

Though not listed on many charts of the Solar System, the dwarf planet Ceres orbits within the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Though not listed on many charts of the Solar System, the dwarf planet Ceres orbits within the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Powerful telescope images of Ceres fail to provide high resolution, and mysterious changes in features have been observed on Ceres over the years. A dark spot observed in 1995 with the Hubble Space Telescope was named "Piazzi," but subsequent observations with the higher-resolution Keck Telescope found no trace of it. Hubble images from 2003 and 2004 show an enigmatic white spot, the nature of which is unknown. The white spot may be a reflective ice patch.

Astronomers use space telescopes to examine Ceres and other objects in the Solar System.
Astronomers use space telescopes to examine Ceres and other objects in the Solar System.

No space probes have yet visited Ceres. On 27 September 2007, NASA launched its Dawn Mission, which will explore the asteroid 4 Vesta in 2011 before arriving at Ceres in 2015. After a year of orbiting it will move progressively closer, from 5,900 km to 700 km from Ceres' surface.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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    • When NASA's Dawn probe arrived at Ceres in March of 2015, it encountered two bright spots on the dwarf planet's surface that were not immediately identified.
      When NASA's Dawn probe arrived at Ceres in March of 2015, it encountered two bright spots on the dwarf planet's surface that were not immediately identified.
    • Though not listed on many charts of the Solar System, the dwarf planet Ceres orbits within the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
      By: Daevid
      Though not listed on many charts of the Solar System, the dwarf planet Ceres orbits within the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
    • Astronomers use space telescopes to examine Ceres and other objects in the Solar System.
      By: Neo Edmund
      Astronomers use space telescopes to examine Ceres and other objects in the Solar System.
    • The Dawn probe, which arrived at Ceres in 2015, was powered by an ion engine.
      The Dawn probe, which arrived at Ceres in 2015, was powered by an ion engine.