Unexpected 'Geological Activity' on Dwarf Planet Ceres, Scientists Shocked

Occator is a large, bright crater on the surface of Ceres. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Geologists from Virginia Tech have discovered why Ceres, a dwarf planet and the largest celestial body in our solar system's asteroid belt, was recently found to show "unexpected geological activity" According to a press release. 

In fact, their findings, as detailed in a paper published earlier this year in the journal AGU Advances, may change our understanding about dwarf planets.

Scientists have studied the existence of Ceres for quite some time, though it wasn't until 2015 that NASA's Dawn probe gave researchers a closer look at the rocky body.

To their surprise, the scientists discovered interesting geological features to Ceres such as plateaus, mineral deposits, and surface fractures—all signs that Ceres once supported seismic activity and even an ocean.

To confirm that theory, however, the dwarf planet would need a way to generate heat at some point in its history – something scientists believe are incapable of smaller planetary bodies.

Mostly because of their violent formation, large planets like our own start out as hot, trigger geological activity, and cool down over time. 

Ceres, on the other hand, was never large enough to become a true planet, and thus could not generate heat during formation.

But according to computer simulation and modeling by scientists from Ceres' distant past, the dwarf planet didn't have to start hot to generate heat.

Rather, they believe that the dwarf planet, which scientists believe contains the radioactive elements uranium and thorium, actually heats up due to internal radioactive decay – which, fascinatingly, causes the body to become cold.  

From hot to hot, once again takes the opposite of hot to cold. Colder patterns can traditionally be seen in larger planets.

"What we have shown in this paper is that radiogenic heating in itself is sufficient to create interesting geology," said Scott King, a professor of geology at Virginia Tech.

Hopefully, this model will be able to provide some insights about other dwarf planets and even some moons.