Do not stare directly into the light. Credit: NASA
Delete Your Orbit is a recurring column on NOW.SPACE that provides well-informed, but alarmingly petty analyses of various objects in our universe.
Back in the heady days of the 1760s and 70s, two astronomers named Johann (Titius and Bode), popularized a mathematical formula that seemed to predict where planets would appear in our solar system. One flaw in the idea, now known as the Titius-Bode Law, was that it predicted an as-yet undiscovered planet in between Mars and Jupiter.
Seeing an opportunity to verify a scientific law that provided a false sense of order and meaning in the universe AND, at the same time, be a boss by discovering a new planet, astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi began searching the skies in that orbital region. He found something, too. He named it after the 12th most popular of the 12 Olympian Deities: Ceres, a goddess of agriculture.
The world had a new planet, and order was restored to our chaotic universe. Sadly, this moment—its own discovery—would unquestionably be the high point in Ceres’ career as a celestial object. It wouldn’t be long before even tinier objects would be located hovering nearby the orbit of Ceres. Evidentially it became clear that Ceres was just a big speck of dust, later given the newfangled name “asteroid,” one among many in a boring cosmic pile of other asteroids.
At least it lent some credence to that Titius-Bode law?
Oh wait. Nope. Turns out the “law” is a fraud too, as Neptune later showed. Ceres was merely the harbinger of a series of increasingly insignificant finds and/or destroyed scientific hypotheses masquerading as a planet. Though Ceres represented a brief period of scientific optimism, after its demotion from planethood, it took on a darker role: as a potent warning against unfettered scientific idealism and naiveté.
Ceres might look impressive at first glance until you realize the place is the size of Texas. Credit: NASA
Ceres was a fraud and a failure as a planet
Sadly, this was a warning that our generation ignored. Despite the fact that Ceres was a fraud and a failure as a planet, NASA now refers to the place as a dwarf planet, and they have decided they’d like to spend a ton of time and money to send a spacecraft named Dawn to take some up-close photos. Once again, the serial fraudster Ceres capitalized on our most innocent hopes and dreams.
One of the first things Dawn confirmed was the existence of remarkably bright and mysterious sets of spots on its surface. As it approached the failed planet, Dawn provided increasingly clear and tweetable images of the bright areas. From that point on Ceres was the toast of the solar system once again.
Scientists and non-scientists alike had a bunch of fascinating ideas about what could be causing these weird bright regions. Scott C. Waring, editor of UFO Sightings Daily, reasoned that the bright lights were large towers that must have been constructed by an intelligent alien civilization. Unrelated analysis, also performed by Waring, showed that it was very likely that the face of Jesus Christ himself was present in the crater that housed the bright spots.
False-color image of Ceres’ Occator Crater, home to the biggest scientific let down of the 21st century. Credit: NASA
NASA, for their part, was a bit more muted in their speculation. They conducted a poll of possible explanations and allowed the public to vote. In descending order of awesomeness, their choices were: cryovolcanoes, icy geysers, some exotic kind of shiny rock, ice, or salts.
Volcanoes or ice geysers were looking possible early on, but closer images revealed that such undeniably cool explanations would be unlikely. Instead, NASA argued it was probably an area of highly reflective materials containing ice or salts. Ultimately, but not surprisingly, it ended up being the most boring explanation possible—salt.
After a riveting debate on what kind of salt it was, scientists settled on sodium carbonate. That’s right, people: those brilliantly bright spots are not an alien civilization, they are not Jesus Christ using Ceres as a base before he makes his triumphant return to Earth, they are not volcanic in any way, and they are not even ice. After all of that hope, it turns out the spot was just baking soda. Mix it with some vinegar, I guess, and you might have your volcano.
Don’t get me wrong. I know the presence of salt means water is probably seeping up to the surface from deep within. Big whoop. Is it 1999, when water would have been an exciting find? What place in our solar system doesn’t have water these days?
To the scientists of the future, I say this: do not allow yourselves to be duped by Ceres’ false promises of scientific relevance again.
TL;DR: Ceres, a failed planet grasping for relevance with seductive but fraudulent suggestions about its true nature, represents nothing more than the discarded hopes and dismantled dreams of scientists—past and present—who have fallen victim to its sleazy lure.