Ceres spins between Mars and Jupiter, tiny in relation to the planets but with a gravitational force that rounds out its celestial body, larger than other asteroids. For the last five years, the Dawn probe has been doing a reconnaissance in and around the dwarf planet. Here’s what we know, newly: there is water there, the rumour of subsurface oceans, the prospect of sustaining life.
Ceres was named for the Roman goddess of the harvest, who was one of the deities who expressed her displeasure with a ‘prodigium’, punishing humans for their offensive behaviour. A prodigium was, binaristically speaking, the opposite of a miracle.
There are other dwarf planets: Eris, named for the Greek goddess of discord, who tossed a golden apple and incited a petty feud that escalated into the Trojan War; Haumea who shines somewhere beyond Neptune’s trajectory, named after the Hawai’ian goddess of childbirth; Makemake, named for the unpartnered fertility deity worshipped by Easter Island’s Rapa Nui people; and of course, the formidable Pluto, which shares its name with the Roman lord of the netherworld, who holds Ceres’ daughter Proserpina (Persephone, in another tongue) hostage for half of each Earthly year, causing the stark variations between seasons in some parts of our planet. Unlike Pluto, who suffered the indignity of losing planet status, Ceres went from being a 19th century asteroid to becoming a dwarf planet. Unlike all the others, Ceres is moonless.
Moonless, without the company of a satellite to count the orbits of short days and long nights by, and holding reservoirs of saltwater, which seep from its fractured crust, containing the memory (or at least the implication) of an ocean once. Ceres may, still, have an underground ocean, a carefully withheld secret. We cannot see her – oh, there it is, the anthropomorphisation I was scientifically trying to resist – with the naked eye, but even on the nights when we don’t think of her, which are more often than not, surely somewhere in our subterranean consciousness it helps to know she is out there. Not all saltwater is the sea, not all saltwater is tears. But in our search for meaning in this lonely universe, there is solace to be scrounged from a metaphor, or in any shared symbol in which we sense something like ourselves.
Ceres intrigues scientists because any celestial object that bears water offers, at least until proven otherwise, the possibility of habitation. By us, human beings, who have almost destroyed the bounty of our own planet and intend to colonise more. Which brings us back to the mystery of Ceres’ aquatic geology. There’s another possibility, another intersection at which myth maps on fact: what if Ceres, a small planet once ocean-surged, had homed a sentience that resembles us in its intellect and sentiment? Neither intellect nor sentiment have kept us from tormenting Earth and its beings, after all. Perhaps, in this interpretation, the mystical and the terrestrial met, and Ceres unleashed a prodigium on that dominant lifeform. Perhaps what that lifeform had in common with us, every other imaginable marker aside, was greed. What happens next, then, is not so much fate as it is choice.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 13th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.