We already know Ceres, the salt-spotted dwarf planet that rules the asteroid belt, could be filled with massive amounts of water, perhaps in the form of a chilled, muddy slurry below the surface. But new research suggests that what looks like a big dead rock is more akin to a stew-pot speeding through space, cooking up the building blocks for life along the way.
Scientists at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics used the Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer on NASA's Dawn spacecraft around Ceres to check out a crater called Ernutet. There, they found evidence of organic compounds key to the chemistry that could form life.
"This is the first time this signature has been seen so clearly on an asteroid," lead scientist Maria Cristina De Sanctis said in a video statement.
Further, the scientists say the materials likely formed on the tiny world itself, rather than being transported there from impact by comets and asteroids. That's the delivery method many suspect brought oceans and the ingredients for life to Earth.
The researchers don't have enough data to determine which exact molecular compounds they're detecting on Ceres, but they appear to be in the methyl or methylene groups, with the closest possible matches being tar-like minerals such as kerite or asphaltite. Sounds like Ceres is ready-made for terraforming, or at least for building a few highways.
Combine the discovery of these organic materials with previous observations pointing to the presence of hydrothermal activity on Ceres, and this dead-looking sphere is shaping up to be much more than it seems.
"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," Simone Marchi, a senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement. Marchi is one of the authors of a paper on the findings that will be published Friday in the journal Science.
Organic compounds have already been detected on Mars and on comets, but Ceres could turn out to be something of a factory for certain molecules.
"Because Ceres is a dwarf planet that may still preserve internal heat from its formation period and may even contain a subsurface ocean," writes planetary scientist Michael Kuppers from the European Space Agency in the same issue of Science. "This opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on Ceres itself."
Put Ceres down on the list of places in the solar system that could have once harbored life or may be hiding it now, alongside Mars, Titan, Enceladus, Europa and some other far-out locales.
Couple this discovery with all the big names striving to make humans live longer and it's never too soon to start planning your first interplanetary trip.
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