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Kwanzaa Tholus on Ceres
The feature on Ceres known as Kwanzaa Tholus is at the center of each of these pictures from NASA’s Dawn probe. The color-coded elevation map at right highlights the feature as a reddish, crescent-shaped swath. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

Kwanzaa may be an African-American festival on Earth, but it’s also a cute little mountain on the dwarf planet Ceres – and there’s a reason for that connection to the season.

Today NASA is highlighting the Cerean geological feature known as Kwanzaa Tholus, in honor of the African-themed harvest celebration that runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase for “first fruits,” and it’s marked by candle-lighting and gift-giving over the course of seven days.

The other part of the name, “Tholus,” is a traditional designation in planetary geology for small mountains and hills, passed down from the ancient Greek and Latin languages. One of the best-known tholi in the solar system is Tharsis Tholus on Mars, a not-so-small mountain that rises 5.5 miles above the surrounding terrain.

Kwanzaa Tholus is much harder to spot: It’s the reddish, crescent-shaped feature in the center of the color-coded elevation map. It measures about 22 by 12 miles, and is elevated about 2 miles above its surroundings.

Scientists speculate that Kwanzaa and other tholi in the area may have formed through muddy ice-based volcanic activity, and became degraded over time.

A close look at data from NASA’s Dawn mission suggests that water played a key role in Ceres’ geological development. The 588-mile-wide dwarf planet (which is also the biggest asteroid in the main belt, between Mars and Jupiter) appears to have harbored a liquid ocean eons ago and could still have a layer of watery wetness beneath the surface.

So what’s the connection between Kwanzaa and Ceres? In Roman mythology, Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, and as a result, the International Astronomical Union decided that the mini-world’s mini-mountains should be named after harvest festivals.

Kwanzaa is one of seven tholi on Ceres’ map, celebrating harvest traditions in climes ranging from Latvia to Peru to India. The next Cerean celebration on the calendar focuses on Dalien Tholus, named after a Cambodian festival that marks the end of the rice harvest in January and February.

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