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Science Breakthroughs of 2015: Dwarf Planets

December 28, 2015

Science Breakthroughs of 2015: The larger planets may get more publicity, but the solar system’s smaller planetary bodies harbor just as many surprises.


Ahuna Mons Lone_conical_mountain_on_Ceres_from_HAMO NASA's Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres from a distance of 915 miles

A bright spot on Ahuna Mons, Ceres, as photographed by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, via Wikipedia)


Small planets in the limelight. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

This week, we’re counting down to the new year with the top science stories of 2015, according to the editors of Science magazine. Today: Dwarf planets. Larger planets like Mars tend to monopolize the media’s attention. But this year, NASA’s missions to tiny Pluto, in the Kuiper belt, and Ceres, in the asteroid belt, re-focused the spotlight onto smaller members of our solar system. Henry Throop is a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute.

HENRY THROOP (Planetary Science Institute):

I think the real exciting thing here is that, even on these small bodies, they’re still active, you know, they’re not cold and dead; they’re dynamic and changing and interesting.


For instance, scientists documented bright spots on Ceres, indicating either icy volcanoes or gases escaping from below. And on Pluto: evidence of a young surface constantly re-shaped by flowing nitrogen ice. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

NASA Vesta Ceres 784px-Dawn_Flight_Configuration_2

Artist’s depiction of the Dawn spacecraft between Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt. (NASA)