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Today (June 30th) is asteroid day.  For this auspicious (yet anxious-making) holiday, I have been saving two asteroid-related miniature stories ripped from the headlines.

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First, we return to the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt.  We need to revisit the bright spots upon the dwarf planet’s surface.  Ever since the New Horizons spacecraft began to approach the little world, these glistening spots have fascinated the astronomy community.  Initially scientists thought that the spots were composed of hydrated magnesium sulfate (a substance quite similar to the Epsom salts sold for bathing and foot-soaking), however it now seems like the shiny patches are made of something else entirely.  According to astronomers, the particular chemical in these glistening patches actually turns out to be sodium carbonate–a salt formed from carbon.  On Earth, this chemical usually forms in evaporitic conditions–when water evaporates from a lake, sea, or hot springs.  This seems to indicate that the geology of Ceres is more complicated than initially thought—instead of a big ice crystal which has always been the same, the miniature planet has undergone changes: surface water evaporated to leave these mysterious chemical deposits.  Hopefully finding out about Ceres’ past can teach us more about how planets form (or don’t form).

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Second, we turn our eyes back closer to Earth to take in the newly discovered “second moon” a tiny asteroid about the size of the great pyramid of Giza which seems to be orbiting Earth.  This new asteroid, called 2016 HO3, is not really a true moon but a quasi-satellite: it sometimes loops around our planet because Earth and the little rock both orbit the sun on a similar circuit.  The asteroid orbits the sun in 365.93 days (just slightly longer than Earth’s orbit of 365.24 days). Thus, for the next few hundred years it will act like a true moon as our orbits converge. The rock is about 40 meters (130 feet) across by 100 meters (328 feet) wide.  It is a bit strange to think about it up there hidden in the darkness, but it is a fairly comforting asteroid day story.  2016 HO3 is never destined to hit Earth.  The really bad asteroids seem to be the ones we don’t know about (so it is time to keep our eyes on the skies and learn more).

The Mountain on Ceres (Dawn Space Probe, NASA)

The Mountain on Ceres (Dawn Space Probe, NASA)

Now that the Dawn spacecraft has actually reached the dwarf planet Ceres, Ferrebeekeeper has been writing less about it!  Today we will remedy that with a spectacular photo taken from the robot probe.  Remember the strange reflected light from Ceres which the world was so fascinated by?  Well now that Dawn is a mere 1500 kilometers (900 miles) from Ceres, we have discovered that the reflections come from a huge glistening mountain—a strange anomaly on the puckered cratered terrain of the dwarf world.   This mound is likely made of some sort of ice and is about the same size as Mount McKinley—the highest mountain in North America (approximately 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) tall).  Geologists (or I guess I should say astrophysicists) are baffled by why the mountain is there—but I am sure that theories will be forthcoming.

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Pundits and media personalities talk about this singular ice mountain as a pyramid (possibly to get hits), but to me it looks like a huge limpet made of ice.  Here is a 360 degree panoramic sweep around of the mountain (which needs a name!).  I wonder what other odd things are hiding in less plain sight on the little world.

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

I was going to write a post about the dwarf planet Ceres–which is currently being explored by the NASA New Horizons robot probe. The more we learn about the failed planetary fragment, the more enigmatic it becomes (the little exploded world seems to be covered with giant pyramid-shaped mountains and weird super reflective craters). However I decided to wait to write this Ceres post until August when New Horizons dips closer to the dwarf planet and we get some clear answers (or at least some better photos). Fortunately, as I researched the mysteries of Ceres, I came across the above statue of the goddess Ceres, and it immediately became one of my favorite artworks from classical antiquity (which is saying quite a lot).

The statue is Roman from the Augustan period. I assume the figure is Ceres (Demeter) but it is possible that it may be her daughter Proserpine (Persephone). Ceres is portrayed as the gentle and munificent goddess of agriculture who is friend to humankind. She is clad in the flowing raiment of a goddess and she holds the bounty of Earth, but her eyes are sad and full of wisdom. Her hands flow with full heads of wheat, but mixed in are the addictive poppies that soothe pain. Beside her two snakes whisper the secrets of the underworld. Agriculture gave us our knowledge and our power, but it also made our world of masters and slaves, and it looks like the goddess recognizes this in her ancient eyes.

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

In my many posts about art and painting, I have shamefully slighted the wonderful 18th century. Here is a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of that era, Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose career was all too brief. Watteau bridged the gap between Baroque and Rococo by bringing the naturalistic color and movement of Correggio to the rigorous classical tradition of great French masters such as Poussin and Lorrain. This beautifully painted oval composition portrays the fertility goddess Ceres shimmering among the lambent clouds in the long pink evenings of summer. Her garb of gold and shell color perfectly suits the joyous abundance of the season. Around her, youths are gathering the precious life-giving wheat while the astrological beasts of the summer sky gambol at her side.

Artist's conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Of course I did not just pull this choice of subjects out of some crazy 18th century hat! As I write this, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is hurtling through the asteroid belt toward the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. Ceres (the dwarf planet) is located in the strange region between Mars and Jupiter. It is large enough to be spherical due to its own gravity but something seems to have gone horribly wrong there. It appears to be the shattered core of a world which either never quite formed or which was destroyed during the making—a miscarriage four and a half billion years old. Scientists have speculated about what the little world is composed of and how it was created, but telescopes have only revealed so much, and no spacecraft has visited prior to Dawn. This is a time of true exploration like the 18th century! Already Dawn’s cameras have spotted bizarre ultra-bright reflections from Ceres. Are they sheets of ice or metal…something else? We will have to wait till the probe enters orbit in April to find out, but I am excited to learn more about the formation of Ceres (which is to say the formation of the solar system) and to finally solve some of the mysteries of this under-appreciated heavenly neighbor.

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

Of course I am also heartily sick of this endless disappointing winter. The sooner Ceres (the allegorical figure of abundance and warmth) brings life back to Brooklyn, the happier I will be. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for exciting news from space and for the return of life and growth here on (the north part of) Earth after a long winter. Also anybody who wishes for the return of classical beauty and allegorical subtlety in the dismal world of ill-conceived & poorly-executed contemporary art will have my heartfelt appreciation and best wishes!

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

The Gallic Rooster minted in gold as a 20 Franc piece

The Gallic Rooster minted in gold as a 20 Franc piece

What is now France was once a province of the Roman Empire. The Latin name for these lands was Gallia—which was an approximate homophone with “galus” the Latin word for rooster—so, thanks to Latin wordplay, roosters were affiliated with the province in Roman times. France took its modern name from the Franks—warlike Germanic tribesmen who seized Gaul as Roman hegemony waned away in the middle of the Fifth century. During the French Revolution, however Frankish things became unfashionable since the Ancien Régime (and the nobility) had their roots in the Frankish conquest. The rooster thus became an unofficial symbol of the First Republic—and this affiliation remains true today during the Fourth Republic (although after the anti-aristocratic fervor of the revolution, anti-Frankish bias died away and the name was again used for all sorts of things—like money).

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This unsatisfyingly exiguous history of words is actually an introduction to one of history’s more beautiful coins—the 20 Franc piece, which was minted from 1899 to 1914 by the Third Republic. On the head side of the coin is the Roman goddess Ceres, the goddess of grain, agriculture, growing, and fecundity (who was also co-opted from the Romans as a symbol of the French Democracy). She is wearing the Phrygian cap of freedom and a wreath (although sadly, her cornucopia is not pictured). The tail side is, of course, the magnificent vainglorious Gallic Rooster with the soaring motto of the Revolution “liberty, equality, brotherhood.” Admittedly the golden meaning of the words loses some of its idealism when stamped in, you know, actual gold, but it is the most beautiful chicken coin I could find from history—and there were some really good ones!

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My roommate and I were talking about the history of the United States and the subject of times when states printed their own money came up. One of these times was during the era from 1777 to 1789 when the new nation was governed by the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (the not-very-successful precursor to the constitution which left the new states plunged in debt and squabbling with each other). Another time when the states printed their own money was during the civil war when the southern states each printed wads of increasingly useless paper money to hold up the faltering southern economy. Sadly I could not find any pretty samples of the former online, but I did discover some images of North Carolina paper money from the Civil War.

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The notes are surprisingly lovely with Roman and agrarian symbolism and hand-written copperpoint calligraphy. A the top of this post is a ten-cent note (coins were expensive to make and metals were needed for the war—although soon rampant inflation did away with sub-dollar bills). The hornet’s nest symbolizes anti-Union defiance and military puissance. The second note down is a seventy-five cent note which features the allegorical figure of commerce surrounded by hives of industrious bees which represent prosperity and fruitful labor.  Thhe note below is a twenty-five cent note which features a very Roman looking (and bare-breasted!) imager of the goddess Ceres, the kind mother of agriculture—which was the root and mainstay of the southern economy. Such money became worthless even before the war was lost: money printed with hymenopteran insects and naked ladies must have seemed like a good idea, but apparently it did not hold up the same way as bills with dead presidents and creepy Masonic images!

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The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance.  It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products.   In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey).  The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.

According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus.   In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her.   In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood.  From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis.  He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food.  In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn.  There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.

Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, print)

Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon.  It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains.  In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).

Demeter holding a Cornucopia

I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal).  Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent.  The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity.  I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.

Ceres (optimized image from the Hubble Space telescope)

Today’s post topic is located in the depths of space far far away from the bats, pumpkins, and haunted deserts I have been writing about for October. The dwarf planet Ceres is located in the midst of the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.  The only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, Ceres is only 950 km (590 miles) in diameter, but it is sufficiently large to have become spherical from its own gravity (and it is by far the largest asteroid). Named after Ceres (Demeter), the mythological goddess of growing things whose daughter was abducted by Hades and who gave the secrets of agriculture to humankind through the farmer Triptolemus, the dwarf planet was discovered in 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a Roman Catholic priest of the Theatine order.  Ceres was the first asteroid to be discovered and it comprises a third of the asteroid belt’s total mass.

A comparison of the sizes of the Earth, Moon, and Ceres

The nebular hypothesis proposes that the solar system formed as a great cloud of space dust and gas coalesced into a disk which then further coagulated into small clumps, then into planetesimals, then into moon-sized planetary embryos, and finally into planets. Ceres is one of the few (or maybe the only) planetary embryos which formed four and a half billion years ago but somehow did not get smushed together with other like bodies to form a planet or hurled off into deep space. The dwarf planet probably consists of a rocky core surrounded with an icy mantle of frozen water.  Ceres is believed to contains 200 million cubic kilometers of water–more fresh water than in all the lakes, rivers, clouds, swamps, ponds (and everything else) on Earth. The Hubble telescope has photographed several mysterious surface features on Ceres including a dark spot believed to be a crater (now informally named after Piazzi) and several bright spots, the nature of which is unknown.

Image of the bright spots on Ceres (taken by the Hubble Space telescope)

Astronomers are profoundly curious about Ceres and hope to better understand the history of the solar system by examining this surviving planetary embryo.  Additionally, the chemical makeup of Ceres is similar to that of Earth. Scientists seeking extraterrestrial life have concentrated on Europa and Mars, but Ceres is next on their short list.

Astronomers will soon have some of their answers about Ceres.  The asteroid probe Dawn is currently orbiting the asteroid Vesta–but its mission there is scheduled to end in July of 2012.  At that point Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to Ceres. In February of 2015 Dawn will enter permanent orbit around the little planet and we will finally have some of our answers.

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