Ceres, a rock-and-ice world located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, contains the building blocks of life. Scientists using data from NASA’s Dawn mission detected carbon-based materials on the dwarf planet, which are essential for the formation of life as we know it. Findings of the study were detailed Thursday in the journal Science.
One more reason to explore Ceres further
The Texas-sized dwarf planet is now on the growing list of places that could one day host human life. The list includes Mars, Jupiter’s ocean-harboring moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists have already found evidence of water, carbonates, hydrated minerals, and salts on Ceres. Christopher Russell, who is leading the Dawn mission, told Reuters that the latest discovery gives us a reason to explore the dwarf planet further.
Using the Visible and Infrared Spectrometer on the Dawn spacecraft, researchers at the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics were checking out a 33-mile wide crater called Ernutet when they found evidence of organic materials. The newly found organics are mostly concentrated in a 385-square-mile area near Ernutet. Scientists surveyed only the mid-latitudes between 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south.
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— NASA's Dawn Mission (@NASA_Dawn) February 17, 2017
The organic molecules formed on the dwarf planet itself
Researchers believe that there could be more such area. Maria Cristina De Sanctis, the lead author of the study, said it was the first time organic materials have been “seen so clearly on an asteroid.” More importantly, these molecules appear to be native to Ceres. They formed on the dwarf planet rather than reaching there via comet or asteroid strikes.
De Sanctis and her colleagues said the organic materials might have formed through chemical reactions involving hot water. Simone Marchi of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, the co-author of the study, said the organic-rich areas on the dwarf planet include carbonate and ammoniated species that are Ceres’ endogenous materials. Had it arrived via an asteroid or comet strike, the heat generated by the strike could have destroyed the organics.
Did primitive life evolve on Ceres?
Dawn’s measurements were not precise enough for scientists to determine what the newly discovered organic molecules are. But their signatures point to tar-like minerals such as kerite or asphaltite, said scientists. The European Space Agency planetary scientist Michael Kuppers said since Ceres may still preserve internal heat from its formation period 4.5 billion years ago and may have a sub-surface ocean, there is a possibility that primitive life might have evolved on the dwarf planet itself.
NASA launched the Dawn spacecraft in 2007 to study Vesta and Ceres. After studying Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012, the spacecraft reached Ceres in March 2015. It has also discovered an ice volcano and weird bright spots on the crater floors on Ceres.