Organic molecules, the substance that serves as the basis for life, were discovered on the dwarf planet Ceres. Using infrared mapping technology, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spotted the molecules in a 400-square-mile area, near the Ernutet crater.
The study team reports that the material likely developed on the dwarf planet, instead of arriving through other objects like asteroids or comets.
Planetary scientist Michael Küppers, from the European Space Astronomy Centre, explained to the Science journal, “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.”
Küppers, who was not a part of the study team, added, “It joins Mars and several satellites of the giant planets in the list of locations in the solar system that may harbor life.”
Surprisingly, researchers have concluded that 10 percent of the dwarf planet’s surface is made of water which is frozen into ice.
The study detailing the discovery was published in the journal Nature.
“…it is technically possible that it (the subsurface ocean) could support life.”
Water ice has been confirmed at the poles of Dwarf planet Ceres.
The ice buried in the craters of the darker regions of the dwarf planet, where the Sun never reaches, could be a signal that points directly to the existence of an ocean below the surface and, therefore, the possibility that it contains a form of undiscovered alien life.
Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt of the Solar System, is the third planetary body behind Mercury and the Moon, where ice has been detected in Polar Regions.
Although sunlight partially bathes the poles of the dwarf planet, it never gets to warm the surface enough, maintaining the surface temperature around 150 degrees Celsius below zero, acting as a true “cold trap.”
Experts suggest that the “dark regions” of these latitudes represent about 2,129 square kilometers of the surface of Ceres.
“By finding bodies that were water-rich in the distant past, we can discover clues as to where life may have existed in the early solar system,” said Carol Raymond, lead scientists of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, via Reuters.
Recently, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research analyzed images of craters in the northern polar region of Ceres taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft and identified locations of perpetual shades in at least 634 craters; of which only 10 had “bright spots” reflecting high levels of sunlight.
By studying the wavelengths of light reflected from these patches – spectroscopy – scientists identified reflective surfaces containing water ice.
Although water is associated with life on Earth, Thomas Platz, one of the principal investigators, maintains skepticism as to how this might be the case with Ceres.
“It’s pretty cold in these permanent shadows — about 60 Kelvin [minus 351 degrees Fahrenheit, minus 213 degrees Celsius],” Platz said.
“I presently don’t see how life can form in such places.”
It remains uncertain how much ice these craters on Ceres might hold “because it’s hard to measure shadowed regions,” Platz said. Still, “the deposit of ice in at least one crater appears quite thick, maybe meters thick.”
Maria Cristina De Sanctis, of Rome’s Institute for Space Astrophysics and Space Planetology, told Space.com, “We cannot exclude that there are other locations rich in organics not sampled by the survey, or below the detection limit.”
Study team members say that the constitution of the organic materials is not precisely known, but their detection signatures are similar to asphaltite and kerite.
Senior research scientist Dr. Simone Marchi, of the Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement, “This discovery of a locally high concentration of organics is intriguing, with broad implications for the astrobiology community…Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials. With this new finding Dawn has shown that Ceres contains key ingredients for life.”