Ceres may only seem like a small space rock compared to the size of the Earth, but it may house one of the most massive ice volcanoes ever to be seen in the Solar System.

Researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center announced on Thursday, Sept. 1, that they have spotted what could very well be a giant cryovolcano on the surface of the dwarf planet. Known as Ahuna Mons, the rupture measures at about 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) tall, which is about half the size of Mount Everest.

While a number of potential ice volcanoes have been spotted on other planets in the past, the scientists believe that the one on Ceres could provide them with the strongest evidence of their existence yet.

Cryovolcano On Ceres

NASA planetary scientist Ottaviano Ruesch said they were surprised to discover the massive volcano on Ceres. They were only expecting to find some lava plains on the dwarf planet.

He and his colleagues made use of data and other images collected by the space agency's Dawn spacecraft, which has been conducting observations of Ceres since March 2015.

Their findings show that the dwarf planet may be geologically active and not simply a crater-filled rock in space. There are evidence that point to possible processes below its surface aside from crater-forming impacts.

High-quality images from Dawn show that Ceres has steep slopes that appear to be covered in debris. The cryovolcano Ahuna Mons also seems to have crags and pits on its summit.

The researchers believe that the massive ice volcano may be a few hundred million years old, which makes it relatively young when compared with the dwarf planet's 4.5-billion-year-old history in the Solar System.

Ahuna Mons has some qualities similar to those of other volcanoes, such as a spreading volcanic dome, much like the one seen on Mount St. Helens on Earth. Volcanoes with this type of dome do not typically release lava into the sky, but rather, they allow the molten earth to slowly ooze to the surface.

Ruesch and his colleagues believe that Ceres' massive cryovolcano may have been formed through a similar process but using ice instead of the usual molten rock.

Observations of Ceres reveal that the planet typically has surface temperatures that reach -113 degrees Celsius (-171.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

While such conditions often lead to the creation rock-hard ice, NASA scientists think that Ahuna Mons contains chloride and other forms of salts instead. Since these salts tend to lower the freezing point of water, they allow briny, viscous cryomagma to form.

The Dawn spacecraft is set to continue its observations of Ceres in the coming days, which would provide Ruesch and his team with more data to analyze the existence of its supposed ice volcano.

The findings of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center study are featured in the journal Science.

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