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Thoughts on Ceres (and Memories of Pohl)

Working on this entry last night, I found my thoughts turning inescapably to Frederick Pohl, the iconic science fiction writer and editor whose death was announced just hours ago. Most Centauri Dreams readers doubtless have their memories of Pohl’s work, perhaps from the great novels of the 1950s like The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law or the striking Gateway of the late 1970’s that would spawn the Heechee series. As something of a bibliographer, I’m also fascinated with Pohl’s role as a youthful magazine editor. He was editing Astonishing Stories for the pulp house Popular Publications at the age of 20, an occupation that would deepen into lengthy runs at Galaxy and IF and later stints editing books for Bantam.


Pohl’s early days in science fiction are captured memorably in The Way the Future Was, a 1978 reminiscence that had me digging through my collection of old pulps to look up issues he had edited. Astonishing was always a favorite of mine, but I was surprised to realize how fond he must have been of Super Science Stories, which he oversaw from 1939 to 1943. In fact, one of Pohl’s last blog entries this July was an exhortation to bring back Super Science Stories in a new format, basing it on reprints much like the late Famous Fantastic Mysteries created by the Munsey group in the 1940s.

“I know I shouldn’t give it a thought, but if an offer got real, how could I say no?” Pohl wrote, not six weeks before his death. I would have loved to have seen that revived magazine in his hands.

But back to business. I learned of Pohl’s death while drawing up some notes on the asteroid belt, with which Pohl will always be associated in my mind because of the Heechee novels, in which some asteroids turn out to have been the site of an incomprehensible alien technology. The juxtaposition seemed utterly appropriate, for I remember reading Gateway in 1980 and thinking that Pohl had deftly sidestepped the interstellar propulsion conundrum. Rather than spending centuries developing the technologies to make a star mission happen, maybe we just run across an artifact that does things we can’t explain and makes such journeys possible. A thousand starships are at Gateway for the asking, though how they work is a mystery. I wouldn’t dream of throwing in any spoilers here, so you’ll have to go to the novels for more.

Ceres Inside and Out

What a grand notion the Heechee novels represented. It’s a shame Pohl won’t be here two years from now when the Dawn mission finally reaches the dwarf planet Ceres, which may hold a few surprises of its own. Orbiting in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres is nonetheless much closer in composition to Jupiter’s moon Europa than to the rocky debris around it, particularly from the standpoint of astrobiology. Is it in fact a closer, easier Europa? This article in Astrobiology Magazine offers some thoughts on what Dawn mission science team liaison Britney Schmidt calls “a game changer in the Solar System.”

The change in nomenclature from asteroid to dwarf planet is indicative of the changes in our view of this object over the decades. When astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered it in 1801, the object seemed inevitable, for as early as 1596 Johannes Kepler had noted the gap between Mars and Jupiter, and Johann Bode would later point to the probability of finding a planet there. The hypothesis of a pattern in planetary orbits like this has now been discredited, but the discovery of Uranus in 1781 seemed to confirm it and Ceres would be found shortly thereafter. As more and more asteroids began to be discovered and the true size of Ceres was realized, it lost the planetary status it had been assigned for almost half a century in astronomy books.

There’s no need to go back into the 2006 debate about what constitutes a planet other than to say that Ceres has now emerged as a ‘dwarf planet,’ joining Eris, Haumea, Makemake and Pluto in the designation. Confusingly enough, Ceres is still referred to as an asteroid in many quarters, though its unique status is conveyed in its round shape, an indication of formation in the early Solar System. The wild card, of course, is that there is the potential for a layer of water ice under the surface. Twice the size of Enceladus, Ceres is less than three times as far from the Sun as the Earth, making it a tempting target for studying water’s history as our system evolved.

Given the surface of objects like our own Moon, we can assume that Ceres has withstood its share of impact events in the early days of the Solar System, but an icy surface could have simply erased the evidence. Spectral evidence is also informative. From the article:

“The spectrum is telling you that water has been involved in the creation of materials on the surface,” Schmidt said.

The spectrum indicates that water is bound up in the material on the surface of Ceres, forming a clay. Schmidt compared it to the recent talk of minerals found by NASA’s Curiosity on the surface of Mars.

“[Water is] literally bathing the surface of Ceres,” she said.

In addition, astronomers have found evidence of carbonates, minerals that form in a process involving water and heat. Carbonates are often produced by living processes.

The original material formed with Ceres has mixed with impacting material over the last 4.5 billion years, creating what Schmidt calls “this mixture of water-rich materials that we find on habitable planets like the Earth and potentially habitable planets like Mars.”

I think Schmidt makes a good point, too, in going on to argue that Ceres may be just as interesting as more distant moons like Europa and Enceladus. For one thing, while Europa taps tidal interactions with Jupiter as a source of heat, Ceres draws on the Sun. For another, it’s considerably warmer than Europa, and unlike the latter, is not bathed in Jupiter’s deadly bands of radiation. Orbital or lander operations on Ceres should pose fewer challenges than Europa. What sets Europa apart, though, is the probability of a liquid ocean, while Ceres’ water is most likely in the form of water ice located in the mantle that wraps around its solid core.


Image: Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope found Ceres was more like a planet than an asteroid — information that eventually led to a change in its categorization from asteroid to dwarf planet. Ceres’ mantle, which wraps around the asteroid’s core, may even be composed of water ice. The observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope also show that the asteroid has a nearly round shape like Earth’s and may have a rocky inner core and a thin, dusty outer crust. Credit: NASA/ESA/SWRI/Cornell University/University of Maryland/STSci.

I’ll return to the science fiction theme by mentioning that Larry Niven’s Known Space stories posit an asteroidal government based on Ceres, while the dwarf planet also appears in various roles in the hands of writers from Alfred Bester to Robert Heinlein and, in recent days, James S. A. Corey. The Dawn mission will presumably not find any Pohl-style gateways among the asteroids, but what an opportunity Ceres presents. In 2015, five months of Dawn’s orbital operations there will turn a fuzzy image into sharply resolved surface features in the same year that New Horizons does the same for Pluto/Charon. Ceres may reshuffle our thinking if we learn that it once had the potential for habitability. What we won’t have, alas, is Frederick Pohl’s fictional take on what a human mission to Ceres might look like and the wonders it might find.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gregory Balaze September 3, 2013, 11:32

    Thanks Paul, I had not heard that Pohl had passed away. I remember reading “Man Plus” in high school which made me realize Mr. Pohl was one of the greats. He certainly will be missed. I think It’s time to immerse myself in his books for the next few weeks.

  • Alex Tolley September 3, 2013, 11:35

    Unless dead comets are common with lower delta-v to reach, Ceres could well become the consumables/propellant supplier of the solar system. Automated water mining facilities might be quite easy to set up. Pure water could then be dispersed throughout the inner solar system to wherever it is needed. Perfect propellant for NTR ships (H2), water ice shielding for big cyclers, water and O2 consumables for colonies.

    It would be interesting to see experiments on how best to extract and purify the water. Humans could even dig in and live below the surface, or simply extract enough water as a good radiation shield for an orbital habitat.

    Ceres might be a very good supply source for a humans on Phobos, paving the way for settlement on Mars.

    I’m looking forward to what we find when Dawn arrives.

  • Paul Gilster September 3, 2013, 11:39

    Man Plus was a striking work. Back in the 1970s, J. G. Ballard wrote this about the book:

    “There has always been a strong organic and surrealist element in Pohl’s fiction, a sense of reality suddenly skewing sideways into some visceral nightmare, nowhere better shown than in his brilliant new novel Man Plus. An obsession with man/machine links runs through much of Pohl’s fiction, and this novel is the story of an astronaut modified in every conceivable way to survive in the harsh conditions of the Martian surface. With multi-faceted eyes, a rhinoceros-hide skin and huge bat-like wings (‘He looks like Oberon,’ one of his designers remarks amiably), the astronaut is transformed into a grotesque monster, the processes of his brain regulated and enhanced by the computer he carries on his back.

    “What is so compelling and so unsettling about Pohl’s vision is that he reveals it to us from within the mind of the astronaut, so that we feel these extensions to sight and touch, thought and movement, and the whole deformed and fluctuating world he perceives, are completely normal. Eventually, on Mars itself, the computer malfunctions, time and space melt into a Dalinian nightmare, the crazed central nervous system of the astronaut overwhelms the landscape. Yet all the way to the startling denouement, one is carried along by the total rationality of Pohl’s narrative. Without doubt, his best novel since The Space Merchants.”

  • Michael September 3, 2013, 13:19

    If there is any other place capable of supporting life Ceres must be near the top, it has it all, water, minerals, organic matter and sufficient light from the Sun for lower forms of life grow.

  • spacechampion September 3, 2013, 13:39

    Would be nice if the mission scientists named a feature on Ceres after Pohl. Lake Pohl has a nice ring to it.

  • David Cummings September 3, 2013, 17:18

    I loved the Heechee novels. RIP Frederik Pohl.

  • A. A. Jackson September 3, 2013, 19:08

    Tho Fred Pohl was slightly younger than many of the big names Campbell published in the 1940’s he learned fast. His autobiography
    The Way the Future Was (1978)
    is very much worth finding. It is not well known that Pohl , multi-tasking, wrote such good advertising copy that when he starting having success as a fiction writer the agency begged him to give it up to write ads!
    He wrote an almost uncountable amount of short stories , early, under many pseudonyms , and he had a lot of collaborations.
    When he teamed with the brilliant Cyril Kornbluth the two of them struck gold! The Space Merchants and Gladiator at Law are two of the great classics of modern SF. Their last collaboration Wolfbane (1959), alas, is an unjustly overlooked gem, their most unusual novel. Kornbluth died at age 34 (we will never know what he would have done).
    I do know one story Pohl told me, Kornbluth left a wife and daughter who struggled financially for many years. Fred combined Space Merchants with a sequel called The Merchant’s War (1984) so he could give the advance and proceeds to Kornbluth’s wife.
    Fred Pohl was the great worthy heir, as editor, from H.L. Gold, of Galaxy Magazine, which with The Magazine of F&SF produced the second revolution in science fiction prose.

  • Wojciech J September 3, 2013, 20:39

    Sad, very sad to see FP pass away…But he left a great legacy that will always be with humanity wherever it might find itself in the future.

    As to Ceres, I believe it to be one of the most interesting places for Solar System colonization. With enormous water resources and lack of gravity well, we could envision it being connected to orbiting habitats with easy access to both water and power.

  • WILLIAM F COLLINS September 3, 2013, 21:09

    frederick pohl will be missed !

  • Phil September 3, 2013, 22:26

    We should expect to be surprised by Ceres, especially if the predictions of recent papers like this turn out to be true:



  • James Davis Nicoll September 3, 2013, 23:28

    The Dawn mission will presumably not find any Pohl-style gateways among the asteroids

    If this is a reference to Gateway, it didn’t have portals but abandoned starships. If it’s a reference to Farthest Star, the alien tachyon communications device was, iirc, on Pluto.

  • Gregory Benford September 4, 2013, 0:52

    All Al Jackson and these others say is quite true.

    Ceres is a worthy astronaut target, too. Well done!

  • Antonio Tavani September 4, 2013, 10:08

    E’ curioso ricordare, che per gli antichi romani, Cerere, era una divinità collegata all’agricoltura, e quindi, alla vita…

    Certo, è una pura coincidenza, però è curiosa, conoscendo gli ultimi dati scientifici, che fanno sperare, in un piccolo mondo non ostile alla presenza di qualche modesta forma di vita…

    Saluti da Antonio Tavani

    Via Google Translate:

    And ‘interesting to remember that for the ancient Romans, Ceres, was a deity connected to agriculture, and therefore to life …

    Sure, it’s a mere coincidence, but it is curious, knowing the latest scientific data, which give hope, in a small world is not hostile to the presence of some modest form of life …

    Greetings from Antonio Tavani

  • Wojciech J September 4, 2013, 13:20

    Antonio-for a fantastic vision of far future colonized Ceres with focus on worship of the Roman deity I can recommend this amazing illustration:

  • Antonio Tavani September 11, 2013, 15:15

    Grazie, “Wojciech J” per il link, segnalato qui sopra…

    Saluti da Antonio Tavani

    Via Google Translate:

    Thank you, “Wojciech J” for the link, reported above …

    Greetings from Antonio Tavani

  • ljk November 19, 2013, 23:20

    Manned Mission to Largest Known Asteroid Designed

    Sending people to Ceres is no harder than sending them to Mars, study says.

    By Charles Q. Choi

    National Geographic


    Rocket scientists who have plotted a course for a human mission to the largest known asteroid, Ceres, say that such a voyage may not be much more challenging than sending people to Mars, according to a new study.

    Research investigating human missions to asteroids blasted off in 2010, when President Obama proposed a human mission to an asteroid by 2025. NASA’s Asteroid Initiative plans to use a robotic spacecraft to tow an asteroid to a stable orbit just beyond the moon, which would enable astronauts to visit the space rock as soon as 2021.

    However, “we wanted to look beyond the small asteroid that President Obama’s plan wants to send people to,” said aerospace engineer James Longuski of Purdue University in Indiana. “Let’s take a bigger step to the biggest asteroid.”

    Full article here: