Scott King, Professor of Geophysics at Virginia Tech's Department of Geosciences, used computer modelling simulations and found that radioactive decay within Ceres might be what keeps the dwarf planet hot enough to stay tectonically active,

Ceres is the largest body in Jupiter and Mars's asteroid belt. It was first discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801 and was said to have no distinguishable features. It wasn't until 2015 that NASA was able to take the first close-by images of the dwarf planet during their Dawn mission. These photographs showed Ceres' surface was surprisingly diverse and indicated unexpected levels of unseen geological activity beneath its crust.

Researchers at Virginia Tech's Department of Geosciences and members of the United States Geological Survey and the Planetary Science Institute, including King, published research findings that theorise Ceres' interior might be active due to radioactive decay.

Planets like Earth, Mars, and Venus start out hot and have consistently demonstrated this throughout recorded history. This initial heat is produced from the friction created by the continuous collision of pieces that make up the planets.

However, Ceres, classified only as a dwarf planet, lacked the size needed to produce heat that way. This is why scientists were baffled by the pictures from the Dawn mission, for they showed surface characteristics that suggest geologic activity.

The Dawn mission captured structures of an enormous plateau on one side of Ceres, localised series of fractures in its crust, and mineral deposits that hinted at an ancient, evaporated ocean. These characteristics require immense quantities of internal heat, which could have been from the disintegration of radioactive elements like uranium and thorium.

Dr Julie Castillo-Rogez, the deputy principal investigator on the Dawn mission, said, "Ceres has a crust of about 25 miles of water-rich material, and about 40% of its volume could be water. It has a lot of carbonates, and it has ammonia on its surface. It has brines, and we think a lot of organics on its surface."

Ceres, the tiny planet, is now considered a chemical factory and a bona fide target for astrobiologists hunting for life beyond Earth. King is currently advocating that Ceres should receive high priority for significant robot expedition following NASA's exploration of the moons of Uranus.

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