Data collected by the Dawn spacecraft during its analysis of the dwarf planet Ceres has revealed the presence of organic molecules on the 590 mile (950 km) object, meaning it could potentially host microbial life, according to research published this week in the journal Science.
Ceres, which is the largest asteroid and one of five dwarf planets in our solar system, now joins Mars and the ocean-bearing moons of Jupiter and Saturn as a potential target in the hunt for life on other worlds, Reuters and the Los Angeles Times reported on Friday.
Dawn, which has been orbiting the dwarf planet for nearly two years, found evidence of carbon-based molecules on the surface. Those molecules appear to be native to Ceres, and not the result of an asteroid impact or a comet strike, the authors of the study explained to Space.com.
“Because Ceres is a dwarf planet that may still preserve internal heat from its formation period and may even contain a subsurface ocean, this opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on Ceres itself,” Michael Küppers, a planetary scientist at the European Space Agency who was not involved in the research, wrote in a related report.
The organic molecules were detected using Dawn’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer instrument, the Times said, and were centered in an approximately 1,000 square km region near a surface crater. The compounds themselves have yet to be identified, but they contain evidence of carbon-hydrogen bonds.
Discovery not necessarily evidence of life on the dwarf planet
The researchers believe that the molecules may contain such as methyl and methylene, and wrote that the compounds matched tar-like minerals like kerite or asphaltite, Reuters and the Times said in their respective reports. However, they caution that this is not evidence of life on Ceres.
”I think these organic molecules are a long way from microbial life,” study co-author and Dawn chief scientist Christopher Russell told Reuters “However, this discovery tells us that we need to explore Ceres further… [and] indicates that the starting material in the solar system contained the essential elements, or the building blocks, for life.”
“Ceres may have been able to take this process only so far. Perhaps to move further along the path took a larger body with more complex structure and dynamics,” like Earth, Russell, who is also a professor at UCLA, said to the news agency via email. He also told the Times that he and his colleagues were “not expecting to see something like this on the surface of Ceres.”
In addition to the 1,000 square km site, which is near Ceres’s Ernutet crater, Space.com noted that there is a second, smaller patch located 400 km (250 miles) away in a second crater called Inamahari. Furthermore, organics may also be located elsewhere, as the authors only surveyed the middle latitudes (60 degrees north to 60 degrees south) of the asteroid.
Image credit: NASA