NASAs Dawn Mission has lead to the discovery of 22 cryovolcanoes on asteroid Ceres that spew water ice instead of lava. Future miners of the asteroid belt could capture this ice to melt and create water for an electrolysis powered fuel source.
Ceres has been classified both as a dwarf planet and an asteroid.
The exploratory Dawn Mission arrived at Ceres in March 2015. Being the largest celestial body in the asteroid belt Ceres can generate a significant gravitational force allowing the Dawn craft to orbit in place.
At first glance sensors captured a glimpse of Cerian mountain “Ahuna Mons” however upon further investigation the mountain was revealed to be a cryovolcano. One other cryovolcano was identified on Saturnian moon Enceladus where scientists have also discovered organic chemistry.
The frigid distance of the outer solar system transforms what would usually fill the space beneath a (dwarf) planets mantle. Now instead of the elements of molten crystal rock including silicon, aluminum and sodium you have ice, ammonia methane and chlorine compounds that are more abundant further away from the sun, effectively replacing “lava” here on Earth.
Since tidal heating requires some sort of larger gravitational body infringing upon the smaller liquid core of an orbiting body scientists have eliminated that as a possible cause of Ceres internal heat source. Instead they hypothesize that in combination with radioactive decay, left over heat from the dwarf planets earlier formation is responsible for churning ice beneath the surface of Ceres.
As of yet 22 cryovolcanoes have been identified on the dwarf planet/asteroid implying that just beneath the mantle lies significant deposits of water ice that could eventually be utilized for expanding humanities influence beyond the asteroid and in to the outer solar system.
Space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk propose that we set up fuel depots at key locations in the solar system, identifying Ceres as a potential target. The idea being to power Space-X’ Big Falcon Rocket along the way to Jovian moons Titan or Europa or Enceladus, which have been identified as prime candidates for colonziation.
Water has the more obvious use of hydration but aside from that a chemical process called electrolysis can break down hydrogen dioxide in to it’s constituent elements – oxygen and hydrogen. Once that step is complete Hydrogen could be utilized as a fuel source for combustion, whereas oxygen can aid the combustion process along and of course support life.
Furthermore, if the Momentus water plasma engine is successfully tested we could potentially eliminate the first step from powering long term space travel at least. Plasma engines are more suited to steady trips that require lower thrust such as traversing across the vastness of outer space. However, when it comes to landing on Jovian moon Enceladus for example we would require some sort of combustible fuel for higher thrust to counteract the crushing force of gravity.
In either case the discovery of cryovolcanoes on Ceres makes it a prime location for ice mining the asteroid belt to eventually power craft further in to the cosmos.
Picture: Richard Bizley/SPL