spaceSpace and Physics

Three-Mile-High “Pyramid” Seen on Ceres


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

722 Three-Mile-High “Pyramid” Seen on Ceres
Ceres' vaguely pyramid-shaped peak can be seen toward the upper right of this image. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn mission is finding plenty of riches on Ceres and the latest treasure is a peak 5–6 kilometers (3–4 miles) high. The supposed pyramid shape of the structure is already bringing out claims of ancient astronauts, although looking closer, it is more of an off-centered cone. Meanwhile, the white spot that aroused so much interest on Dawn's approach turns out to be just the largest of numerous bright spots.

Dawn is now orbiting at a height of 4,300 kilometers (2,700 miles). While this is low enough to allow it to see the surface in some detail, it doesn't give a great sense of how high the peak is, particularly when the sun is almost overhead, cutting down on shadows. Nevertheless, located in a relatively flat part of the dwarf planet, and with relatively light-colored flanks, the pyramid stands out.


A peak of that height is nothing extraordinary on Earth. However, at the higher end of estimates, the unnamed Ceres mountain may be higher than Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain to rise straight from Earth's plains rather than being part of a mountain range. It is easier for high peaks to form on low-gravity objects (which is why Martian volcanoes are so much higher than anything on Earth). Still, on an object with a radius of less than a tenth of Earth's, and therefore with under 1% the surface area, this is a distinctively large feature.

Inevitably, some people think that the presence of a reasonably symmetric object must indicate that at some point in time intelligent life forms occupied the asteroid, piled billions of tons of rock into a shape that slightly resembles those created in ancient Egypt and then pushed off. Well, it's not something that we can disprove, although we like to think that any species capable of such advanced engineering would have avoided the small but discernible skew.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that many isolated peaks on Earth, including Kilimanjaro and Fuji, look a bit similar. Maybe they were built by aliens too.

Another feature of Ceres bringing out the, um, eccentrics, is the bright white spots, now up to eight after Hubble spotted the first in 2003. On Youtube you can find plenty of people happy to express their confidence that the bright pixels are the lights of alien cities, space stations or mining operations. To be fair, NASA is puzzled by these as well, but the favored theories involve ice or some sort of salt deposit.


The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Carol Raymond also pointed to a less obvious oddity of Ceres that may help astronomers to understand its inner workings. “Icy moons in the outer solar system have craters with central pits, but on Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common,” Raymond said. So far, no signs of liquid surface water, such as those Dawn saw on Vesta, have been detected, but on World Asteroid Day, June 30, Dawn will start moving closer still.

Meanwhile, NASA has created this animation from images taken on previous, slightly more distant, orbits.




spaceSpace and Physics
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